Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #19 – The Secret to Advancing in Devotion

May 11th, 2020

A simple sādhu was asked by his friend for his secret in spiritual life. I loved his reply: “I do the same thing every day.” What he said struck me. It was simple and humble, but also brilliant and even witty.


A strictly regulated spiritual life certainly doesn’t conjure up the image of excitement. It is the key, however, to a truly dynamic one. Here’s why.


The strength of spiritual life are our practices, especially meditation, and the foundation of that practice is concentration. When our concentration is prolonged and uninterrupted, the mind gradually evolves to sattva, or goodness, which simultaneously raises one to a higher level of perception and contentment. It is hard to imagine achieving anywhere near this level of enlivenment without this “same thing every day” type of regulation, which fosters resolve and focus.


The mind is usually filled with a myriad of desires and responsibilities, ready at any minute to challenge the object of our meditation for attention. And that challenge becomes infinitely more difficult in today’s world if you add the multiple impressions of media, especially social media, that flood and agitate the mind. Without reserving an exclusive time and space for our spiritual practice every day, where as far as possible there are no other competing responsibilities or attractions, it’s hard to imagine resisting the two main obstacles to our focus, vikṣepa (distraction born of passion) and laya (lethargy and sleep born of ignorance). And without such regulation our practice will surely remain a chore and difficult to maintain. This is certainly true on the path of bhakti.


The foundation of bhakti is our relationship with God. Like all relationships, our attention to the object of our adoration is the basis of nourishing that relationship. But again, without the focus that regulated life affords us, we will likely be challenged on the path of bhakti by distraction or sleep, especially during our most important sādhana, the offering of our consciousness to Krishna in the form of His holy name.


There is no doubt that our goal is spontaneous devotion, but we should never equate our lack of regulation with such spontaneity. Those who truly have spontaneous devotion make every effort to discipline themselves without distraction. The devotion of Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī, the exemplar for spontaneous devotion, was so unwavering and regulated that it was described to be like the lines on a stone.


Those who have studied the life of Śrīla Prabhupāda marveled at how regulated his life was, even during his travels around the globe fourteen times. When I first stayed in Vṛndāvana, I had the fortune of being able to gaze out my window in the very early morning to view His Divine Grace sitting on his āsana in front of his desk on his upstairs porch translating the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. No matter where he was, Śrīla Prabhupāda never failed to do that early morning service. That type of resolve and regulation is the story of every accomplished spiritual adept in the history our lineage, even the modern-day saints of devotion.


It is great to hear about the exemplars of devotion. But what about us? Shouldn’t we feel discouraged in the attainment of such regulated and sattvic meditation and practice? Bhakti is a science. Therefore, we should feel assured that as soon as we set a time and place daily for a practice, our enthusiasm and taste will gradually grow.


I am here in New Jersey on lockdown. It facilitates regulated life. I have strictly scheduled my day mostly around chanting and hearing about Krishna. I joke that I love “my boring life”, but I can’t imagine anything more enlivening than doing the “same thing every day”.


“I offer my respectful obeisances unto the six Gosvāmīs, namely Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī, Śrī Sanātana Gosvāmī, Śrī Raghunātha Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī, Śrī Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī, Śrī Jiva Gosvāmī, and Śrī Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī, who were engaged in chanting the holy names of the Lord and bowing down in a scheduled measurement. In this way they utilized their valuable lives, and in executing these devotional activities they conquered overeating and sleeping and were always meek and humble, enchanted by remembering the transcendental qualities of the Lord.” (Śrī Śrī Ṣaḍ-gosvāmy-aṣṭaka, v. 6)



Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #18 – The Movement of Radical Respect

May 4th, 2020

On first reading, the story seemed hard to believe. How can one possibly justify Śrī Caitanya chastising Advaita Ācārya, His respected senior by fifty years?


Of, course the simplest explanation was that Śrī Advaita purposely did the one thing that he knew would so infuriate the Lord that He would have no choice but to reprimand Śrī Advaita as an underling. He preached the doctrine of yoga-vāśiṣṭha, a doctrine so antagonistic to the tenets of Śrī Caitanya’s mission that the Lord would certainly lose His temper and take a superior position for the purpose of punishing him. It worked. By breaking the Lord’s “illusion” of reverence for him, Śrī Advaita was finally able to bask in the mood of being accepted as the Lord’s servant, a role where the Lord would now accept his prayers and service. That is the basic justification for the Lord’s behavior, but as the story continues a deeper import is gradually revealed.


When Śrī Caitanya’s anger subsided, He realized Śrī Advaita’s unalloyed devotion and felt extremely embarrassed for what He had just done. To make up for His offense, He offered Śrī Advaita this astounding benediction:


“I will bestow mercy on any living entity—even an ant, insect, animal or bird—who takes shelter of you for even a moment, even if that living entity commits hundreds of offenses against me.” (Caitanya-bhāgavata Madhya-khaṇḍa 19.170)


Śrī Advaita appreciated the sentiment behind Śrī Caitanya’s statement; He simply wanted to exalt His devotee. After hearing what was said, Śrī Advaita cried and caught hold of the Lord’s feet. He couldn’t, however, agree with it literally. How could anyone acting antagonistic to the Lord get His blessing, even when taking shelter of a devotee? Śrī Advaita even cited numerous cases to support his view. Both Hiraṇyakaśipu and Rāvaṇa, who were antagonistic to the Lord, were killed by the Him, despite worshipping and satisfying His devotees. Śrī Advaita’s opinion was unequivocal and very strong:


“If one worships me [the devotee] but does not accept you [the Supreme Lord], then may his devotion to me [the devotee] annihilate him.” (Caitanya-bhāgavata Madhya-khaṇḍa 19.172)


Śrī Caitanya patiently heard Śrī Advaita’s explanation. He did not overtly disagree with him, but became even more determined to return to the import of His original statement, which was to extol the position of respect His devotees hold:


“Everyone listen to My words. Any fallen soul who disrespects My servant and worships Me cuts Me into pieces. His worship feels like fire to my body. My wish-fulfilling holy names destroy one who blasphemes My servant.” (Caitanya-bhāgavata Madhya-khaṇḍa 19.207-209)


Śrī Caitanya continued by not only strengthening His point about avoiding disrespect to His servant, but broadened the scope of who is considered to be a servant:


“All living entities in the innumerable universes are my servants, so anyone who blasphemes any living entity is ruined.” (Caitanya-bhāgavata Madhya-khaṇḍa 19.210)


And He let it be known that no one, even those in the highest position in society, were not spared from His edict:


“If even a sannyāsī blasphemes an innocent person, he goes to hell and all his religious principles are destroyed.” (Caitanya-bhāgavata Madhya-khaṇḍa 19.212)


Śrī Caitanya finally finished this pastime by announcing the real import of what had just transpired:


“Raising His arms, Lord Gauranga declared to the world: Avoid offenses and chant the names of Krishna! If one who is free from blasphemy chants the names of Krishna even once, I will certainly deliver him.”  (Caitanya-bhāgavata Madhya-khaṇḍa 19.213-214)


Advaita did not want to be respected by Śrī Caitanya. He hatched a plan to break the Lord’s reverence for him so that he could therefore serve Him. The Lord responded by chastising Advaita and then glorifying him, which led to a segue that ultimately revealed the deepest import that is the core of Śrī Caitanya’s teachings—unconditional respect for others.


Śrī Caitanya has made it clear that He wants His followers to exemplify the radical respect that He has taught here. Can we rise to meet the challenge?


“One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking himself lower than the straw in the street. One should be more tolerant than the tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and ready to offer all respects to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.” (Śikṣāṣṭakm v. 3)


Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #17 – We Need Devotees Who Do Nothing

April 27th, 2020

Ravindra Svarupa dasa has a way with words. I heard him say the above more than twenty years ago. At that time, he was about to be installed as the yearly chairman of ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission. He felt that for his purification and the purification of ISKCON, which was naturally facing a myriad of crises, he first needed to sit in Govardhana and chant all day for a month, which he did. His phrase initially sounded strange, but after some thought, I understood what he meant.


The foundational teaching of ISKCON is based on the Bhagavad-gītā. It strongly believes in its message and is focused on sharing that. Naturally, in the struggle to share and maintain its values, many problems have arisen. To rise to the challenge of dealing with them it needs to inspire its members to cooperate, which requires spiritual strength. Its leaders, therefore, must have a strong inner life. Although there are different ways on the path of devotion to do that, it would be helpful if at least a few of its leaders or senior members concentrated exclusively on a contemplative life by withdrawing from external responsibilities to sit down in one place and chant Hare Krishna, or at least to substantially make that more of a priority in their life. In other words, doing nothing, which is not exactly doing nothing, but instead freeing oneself of most external duties so that one can devote the bulk of one’s time to mantra meditation and other forms of chanting and hearing. I surmise that’s what he was implying with his quick-witted phrase. It also exemplifies our tradition.


Śrī Caitanya’s life was ācārya-līlā. He was setting the example, by His life, of how a devotee should live. Part of that example was that the last eighteen years of Śrī Caitanya’s life, and He only lived for forty-eight, was practically devoted to the exclusive cultivation of His inner life. That life wasn’t, however, completely detached from His mission to share Krishna-consciousness. His disciples visited Him yearly and were energized in their service by the depth of His association and the realizations He shared with them.


Śrīla Prabhupāda hinted that he also wanted to be that example for his mission, but there weren’t enough devotees qualified at the time to relieve him of his responsibilities.


“In the last stage of the spiritual master’s life, the devotees of the spiritual master should take the preaching activities into their own hands. In this way the spiritual master can sit down in a solitary place and render nirjana-bhajana [solitary spiritual practice].” (Bhag. 4.28.33, Purport)


I was sort of encouraged in this way myself when I took sannyāsa in 1982 from Satsvarupa das Goswami. He told the initiates, five at the time, that we need leaders whom other people can trust, so we should avoid politics and business. At the time, I was the manager of a large institution, so it was difficult to avoid political and money matters. It came with the territory, so to speak, but what he said did deeply resonate with me. Of course, he didn’t mean to give up preaching activities, but the import was similar: At a certain appropriate time one needs, as a service, to move more towards activities that connect one more directly with one’s inner development to remain spiritually fit for oneself and for the benefit of society.


I am hunkered down here in New Jersey. A few hours ago, Ṭoṭā-gopīnātha, who is near-by, brought me lunch. He shared with me a class he just heard “zoomed” in from Madhavananda das that echoed a similar theme to what I was just writing: “The Krishna consciousness movement began indoors with the devotees cloistered in kirtan at Śrīvāsāṅgana, the house of Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura, and now the mission of Śrī Caitanya is also forced inside. Is it not a call for inner life?”


True, the Krishna conscious movement began inside. The devotees were, in a way, locked down in their spiritual practices by the force of the Mogul rule and thus couldn’t practice their devotion outside. That deep internal cultivation of the holy name amongst them, however, created almost a centripetal force that quickly propelled the mission beyond the walls of their houses and into the streets to share their joy. Is history, in a way, repeating itself? Will being hunkered down inside force us to go deeper in our practices and impel us to return outside with a greater force and joy?


I turn seventy years of age this year and am happily confined inside, where I am increasingly inspired, as a service to the mission of Śrī Caitanya, to be a devotee who “does nothing”.


Chant Hare Krishna!


So this preaching is also chanting Hare Krishna mantra. This is preaching. That has been so when he is firmly convinced, then he can give up preaching and sit down and simply chant. Not in the beginning. That is imitation. He must be firmly convinced. So we have to study Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s life. Except—this is the clear and simple truth—except chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, there is no other business of the human being shown by all the disciples of Caitanya Mahāprabhu.” (Morning walk May 8, 1975)


Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #16 – Commitment Changes Consciousness

April 20th, 2020

After offering the traditional oblations for His recently deceased father in Gayā, Śrī Caitanya returned home to Nadiya as a changed man. A seemingly proud young scholar of Nyaya (logic) was now the emblem of humility. What happened? In Gayā He met his guru, Īśvara Purī, took initiation, and surrendered fully. As I was reading this pastime, an original phrase to represent the basis of spiritual transformation immediately came to mind: “commitment changes consciousness”. I loved how it sounded, but more importantly I was intrigued to investigate in a little more depth how this transformation works.


Commitment means surrender. Many times I have talked about this subject, how the word “surrender”, although the best English word available, does not accurately translate the word “śaraṇāgati”, which is used in a very specific spiritual context. “Śaraṇāgati” literally means approaching (agati) for shelter (śaraṇa), which is a voluntary submission to that which is worthy of refuge because of its embodiment of knowledge and affection, while the word “surrender” mostly means commitment by force, such as being conquered in war or battle, or blind or begrudging adherence to rank. In other words, when using the word “surrender” as a translation of śaraṇāgati, it is often naturally misunderstood in ways not intended. Now back to our original question of why Śrī Caitanya changed so radically by His firm surrender or commitment.


At every moment we have a myriad of choices. The correct choice that elevates and transforms the consciousness closer to the true self, which is consciousness meant for service and devotion, is deemed dharma. Without commitment to dharma we will be dictated mostly by the impulses of the mind, which simply fortify the bodily or egoistic conception of life. Commitment to dharma therefore changes one’s consciousness by helping one gradually transcend selfish or material consciousness.


The highest dharma, and the fullest sense of surrender, is unconditional surrender to the will of the Divine. It doesn’t mean to renounce one’s dharma or duties prescribed according to one’s material situation, for that is God’s will to purify us. However, it does mean that at heart the priority in all one’s activities is exclusively for the pleasure of God, even in the rare case it calls for the sacrifice of one’s prescribed duties. That internal sense of complete surrender, called śaraṇāgati, was the commitment that Śrī Caitanya made at Gayā when He took shelter of His spiritual master. That full commitment to live one’s life exclusively by the shelter of the highest truth is the doorway to bhakti. It naturally attracts God’s mercy, who reciprocates His unalloyed devotee’s surrender by bestowing upon them the highest form of love, prema-bhakti. Fully committed to the Divine, Śrī Caitanya thus returned to Nadiya a changed man, fully intoxicated by love of God.


Who is a person of character and how do we become one? It is one who is committed to live his or her life by principles rather than whims. Who is a person of devotion and how do we become one? It is a person who is committed in heart to fully serve guru and Krishna and, feeling the Lord’s presence in return, is overwhelmed with gratitude and devotion. Commitment changes consciousness!


Śrīmān Paṇḍita and the other devotees cried out of intense love for Krishna. Tears of love flowed from the Lord’s eyes in all directions as if the Ganges had appeared there. Everyone was struck with wonder and thought, ‘We have never before seen Him like this’.” (Caitanya-bhāgavata Madhya-khaṇḍa 1.33-35)



Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #15 – The Yoga of Corona

April 13th, 2020

I hesitated to keep this title. It seems a little ghastly or even insensitive, but there is a precedent that inspired me to leave it as it is. The first chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā is entitled “Viṣāda-yoga” (The Yoga of Despair). In other words, anything becomes yoga, even despair, when it brings us closer to understanding our self and God. In light of that, some reflections on the “Yoga of Corona” will follow, but first one more point is needed to highlight the relevance of today’s subject. Yoga is not just meant for an easy day-to-day life. It is specifically meant to give us the strength and spiritual buoyancy to deal with the world and the incredibly stressful circumstances that repeatedly arise, which is exactly the reason why the Bhagavad-gītā, one of the main yoga texts, was spoken in the midst of a ghastly war.


Śrīla Prabhupāda on Corona


“Constant remembering the lotus feet of the Lord means preparing for liberation from birth and death. Therefore, even though there are so-called calamities, they are welcome because they give us an opportunity to remember the Lord, which means liberation.” (Bhag. 1.8.25, Purport)


Removing the false ego


We don’t experience our connection with God because the soul is covered by the false ego, which is our sense of superiority based on the desire to control and enjoy. If anyone in the world had any sense that they were the controller because of their opulence and power, they should certainly think twice. Even the richest and most famous people with all of their accoutrements of power are helplessly quarantined. Is Krishna arranging all this, and for that matter all life’s challenges, simply to help deconstruct and remove that false sense of control so we can experience our true identity and call to Him with feeling?  Is this not the import of Queen Kunti’s prayers?


“My Lord, Your Lordship can be easily approached, but only those who are materially exhausted. One who is on the path of [material] progress, trying to improve himself with respectable parentage, great opulence, high education and bodily beauty, cannot approach you with sincere feeling.” (Bhag. 1.8.26)


What the hell are we missing?


A lawyer friend, whose office is in Manhattan, lamented staying home because of the crisis. I said, “But you hate your job!” He nodded, “It’s miserable. I really do hate work!” I commented, “Just see, you are missing that which gives you anxiety.” We laughed. A reflection: We get acclimated and attached to a life that moves at breakneck speed and robs us of the things that we value most and which simply cause us anxiety. Perhaps Krishna wants us to try to live more wholesome lives, rather than go back to the one we had, or to at least try to start making some adjustments to move in that direction?


Śrīla Prabhupāda was right.


He pushed for economically based self-sufficient rural communities, but for the most part his disciples failed in that endeavor. They were born in the mid-twentieth century and had already been conditioned by a false sense of opulence based on gadgets and convenience, and thus looked at rural life as too austere. Real opulence, however, is fresh air, home grown food with family, community, and worship in walking distance. When your whole modern economic system can seemingly collapse at any time like a stack of dominos, does not the stability of self-sufficiency that Śrīla Prabhupāda promoted suddenly look more enticing?


Final thoughts


“The duty of a sane person, therefore, is to be undisturbed by worldly calamities, which are sure to happen in all circumstances. Suffering all sorts of unavoidable misfortunes, one should make progress in spiritual realizations because that is the mission of human life. The spirit soul is transcendental to all material calamities; therefore the so-called calamities are false.” (Bhag. 1.8.25, Purport)


“This material world is full of suffering. Take shelter of the holy name of Krishna as your only business.” — Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura Aruṇodaya Kīrtana song 1, verse 6



Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #14 – The Trick of Turning Weakness into Strength: Part 2

April 6th, 2020

Personal weakness can be classified into two categories: weakness of will and weakness of destiny. We have already discussed turning weakness of will into strength. I summarized that in Part 1:


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. 


The weakness of destiny has two division: the weakness of abilities and the weakness of circumstance. The weakness of abilities refers to any inherent challenging physical or mental deficiencies that reduce our power to control and enjoy in the world. Weakness of circumstance refers to the challenging circumstances thrust upon us that come and go that are independent of our personal capabilities.


Whatever our weakness, whether it is in our ability or circumstance, we can turn them into a strength with two powerful tools: adjusting our goals and adjusting our perspective. For this entry we will focus on turning the weakness of ability into a strength.


The first trick to turning our weakness of ability into a strength is to change our goals to meet our abilities. I read an interesting example in this regard in reference to the law of karma that illustrates this.[1] If God gives one a hammer and the goal is to become a concert violinist, the hammer is a weakness. If one, however, changes one’s goal to become a carpenter, then all of a sudden one’s weakness, the hammer, becomes one’s strength. In other words, if we change our goal to align with the abilities God has given us, then what we may have perceived as a weakness can become a strength.


It is not that we cannot overcome obstacles and achieve great things, but we are only capable within certain karmic parameters. I have told the story before of a friend, David, who was very short by his constitution, but who ardently wanted to be a high school basketball player. Due to his physical inability — his lack of height — he never even came close to making the team and remained very frustrated. Again, if he had accepted his fate instead of setting unrealistic goals, and focused on a sport more suited to his physical stature, where there were different weight classes and height wasn’t necessarily an impediment, like wrestling for example, then the apparent weakness of his small stature could have been his strength.


I have discussed making a weakness into a strength by aligning one’s abilities with the proper goal, but what if one has few redeeming capabilities? Doesn’t one’s weakness remain so? Even if hypothetically one has no redeeming material attribute, one can adopt a spiritual perspective where one values virtue and spiritual consciousness more than anything else. From that perspective, even the most forlorn weakness can be seen as an asset or strength, for challenges in life are usually the forces that most deepen one’s consciousness. And even in terms of accomplishment in the world, a sincere person bereft of any substantial ability or talent can always serve and assist others with more ability than themselves, which from the spiritual perspective is the greatest strength. I always remember the profound words of a simple lady who passed away in Vṛndāvana: “I am not advanced, but I know who is, and I serve them.”


[1] I read this analogy years ago in a book on astrology from Vic Dicara.

Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #13 – How Bhakti Works

March 30th, 2020

I had a few thoughts about how bhakti works based on what is arguably the most important verse in bhakti-yoga:


“One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking himself lower than the straw in the street. One should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and ready to offer all respects to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.” (Śikṣāṣṭaka 3)


I argue that it is the most important verse because among the eight verses Śrī Caitanya personally wrote to codify His mission, it is this verse that He singled out when instructing Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī about the goal of life (prema-bhakti), whom the tradition honors as the prayojana ācārya, the main teacher to exemplify and espouse the intricacies of this goal. In this regard, it is also significant that Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, the main biographer of Śrī Caitanya, elevates this verse to a special status seemingly reserved for no other verse. After describing Śrī Caitanya’s explanation of this verse to Śuklāmbara Brahmacārī, he spontaneously declared:

“Raising my hands, I declare, ‘Everyone please hear me! String this verse on the thread of the holy name and wear it on your neck for continuous remembrance.’” (Cc. Ādi-līlā 17.31)


Before explaining how this verse reveals the essence of how bhakti works, we first need to understand further the nature of two things: prema (pure love of god) and the main obstacle to achieving it. First, a short explanation of the basic nature of prema.


Love is the natural energy of affection between two beings who have a relationship. Whether it’s a mother and a child, two siblings, or even a calf and a cow — any beings naturally related to one another spontaneously feel an energy of love between them. When this energy is transcendental and felt between the soul and God it is called the pinnacle of love, or prema-bhakti.


On face value attaining this shouldn’t seem difficult. After all, nothing is outside of God, and He is immediately accessible in His direct manifestations, like the holy name. Should we not, therefore, feel that all-powerful energy of our eternal relationship with God when in contact with Him, especially when we chant His names?


Unfortunately, no matter how powerful something is, its effect can be blocked from influencing something even insignificant if that thing is shielded or covered, just as the powerful energy of the sun can be thwarted in its influence on us by a small umbrella. Similarly, the powerful energy of our relationship with Krishna can be obscured from our hearts by the obstacle or cloud of the false ego, which more than anything else is the desire for superiority and control. Now back to our original thesis on how the third verse of the Śikṣāṣṭakam reveals the essence of how bhakti works.


The third verse makes a very noteworthy claim that one in a humble state of mind can chant always. There is an interesting connection between the two. As just mentioned, the cloud that covers the soul and blocks the feelings of our relationship with Krishna is pride or false ego. As humility is directly antithetical to the false ego, a person with a humble mind, and therefore uncovered by false ego, can directly experience the energy of prema between the soul and God while chanting His names. As that experience of prema is the topmost love and the highest pleasure, one chanting in a truly humble state of mind never wants to stop. More specifically, the verse outlines the three qualities of a humble mind that open the heart to this direct communion with Krishna in the form of the holy name: deep modesty, tolerance, and respect.


So how does bhakti work? The goal of bhakti is the experience of communion with Krishna. Śrī Caitanya clearly outlined the four-fold process of achieving that: humility, tolerance, respect, and chanting the holy name always. That’s how bhakti works.


“One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking himself lower than the straw in the street. One should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and ready to offer all respects to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.”


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.”



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