Archive for the tag 'journal'

Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #2 – I am the Greatest!

January 9th, 2017

I have finally been gifted my own residence here in Vṛndāvana after having lived here for over forty years. And what a place! It overlooks the āśrama of Rādhā-ṭilā, a place of Śrī Rādhā’s pastimes. Its simple āśrama residents try to preserve and worship the dhāma by living in exactly in the same way the Six Gosvāmīs did five hundred years ago unencumbered by any so-called modern conveniences. The special feature of Rādhā-ṭilā is that the sādhus here feed the birds of Vṛndāvana one hundred kilos of millet everyday at 2 PM. It attracts thousands and thousands of birds, mostly parrots, freely buzzing around its trees in droves during the feeding that lasts for several hours. The sight is stunning as is the remembrance of the pastime here: the parrots are the disciples of Vṛndā-devī, the goddess of the Vṛndāvana forest, who would fly all over Vraja to scout the safest passage ways for Rādhā to go meet Kṛṣṇa. In reciprocation Rādhā would come here to feed them and that bird feast is still going on after 5,000 years!
My seat for my japa meditation faces a large picture window that perfectly frames the top of this Rādhā-ṭilā forest with its birds. I so much enjoy sitting here and looking at the most beautiful sight in the world: the Vraja forest filled with its birds. But today a thought suddenly came, “Why do I enjoy this so much?” I searched my mind and saw a thought that disturbed me and made me question whether I was enjoying these sights as a service to Kṛṣṇa, or if there was some another reason for my joy? “I now have the best room with the best sight and thus I am better than others.” I was a bit taken aback. Was I becoming like the tourist who enjoys his vacation to an exotic destination and takes pictures, not because he is absorbed in the pleasure of the moment, but to announce to the world that he is also great because he is enjoying more than others? Am I wishing or announcing that most insidious of all thoughts:
“I am the greatest!”
My older brother and myself were big fans of Muhammad Ali. We listened intently to his fights on the radio with Sonny Liston and even went to the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden to watch him train. We also loved his bravado as he would proudly scream, “I am the greatest!” Now, almost fifty years later, my values have changed. In contrast, I adore the humble, simple servants of Kṛṣṇa whose greatness is that they don’t think themselves better than everyone or anyone. I now worship those who see everything in relation to love and service, but deep within me I still saw the false ego wanting to announce to the world in a similar way, “I am the greatest!” And all because I have the best view. How silly the subtle mind!
Sādhu beware! The false ego is devious and tries to take everything for its own service, even our good qualities, as one can easily become proud of being in goodness, practicing renunciation, or even being humble. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta thus even cautioned us about living in Rādhā-kuṇḍa, I assume because he understood how easily that same sinister voice could convince us that we are the best simply because we reside in the topmost place, a conviction that would ironically doom our spiritual life, even when residing in the best place.
I am sitting here writing this article on my seat of prayer enjoying this mystical scene of the Rādhā-ṭilā birds praying that my happiness is only because I am witnessing a spark of Kṛṣṇa’s splendor and feeling His mercy. I have no other qualification and by Śrīla Prabhupāda’s grace that is becoming clear.

Monday Morning Greetings #52 – Moral Diversity, Book Banning, and the Conservative/Liberal Polemic in ISKCON

December 26th, 2016

I recently started to write a review of a book that was banned in ISKCON, but my book review soon morphed into something else: a study of moral diversity as a template to bridge the gap between the Society’s conservative and liberal wings.
Three months ago, I was included as a receiver to a flurry of impassioned but reasonably well-reasoned protest letters from the disciples of Bhakti Vikāśa Swami to a long list of ISKCON leaders, arguing that it was improper for the GBC to ban their guru’s book Women: Masters or Mothers? I was a little annoyed at first. I am not an ISKCON leader, and I hadn’t read or seen the book, or even had an interest to do so. But as I received letter after letter, my interest was piqued to find out why this book was such a controversy. I protested to the writer of the next letter I received, “I am not an ISKCON leader, nor even technically in ISKCON, and I have not even read the book. If you choose to continually copy me on your complaints, at least send me a copy of the book!” And she did.
In a sense, whether I agreed with the author’s opinion or not, I couldn’t fathom why the book should be banned. It was mostly quotes from Śrīla Prabhupāda espousing the more traditional view of the role of women in society, and the author gave many reasonable and well-argued supporting arguments. The cover was too provocative, and some parts were too polemical—some bordering on the pejorative, especially in discussing a topic with such a history of abuse—but I just couldn’t justify the ban, and neither could the GBC.
The GBC soon rescinded their restrictions, but I still felt that this was a book and a subject matter that sorely needed to be addressed. I initially decided to write a careful book review addressing in depth the various issues and arguments raised, but when I realized what that would entail, I hesitated. I would not only have to deal elaborately with each, or many, of the book’s points, either defending or refuting them, but I would also risk getting drawn into a long and fruitless debate with people entrenched in their views, an exercise I definitely had no interest in or time to initiate. I decided that it would be better to just highlight the core issue and address the controversy in a more general way
While pondering how to tackle the issue, I came across a relevant lecture by Jonathan Haidt, a NYU professor of sociology, entitled “The Moral Roots of Conservatives and Liberals.”[1] I thought his lecture neutrally addressed the core principles at the root of the conservative/liberal dichotomy, so I became inspired, as a contribution to this discussion, to summarize his study, apply his thesis to the Mothers/Masters dichotomy, and then suggest where Mahārāja’s otherwise thoughtful social analysis based on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s teachings fell short.
In his lecture, Professor Haidt described his comprehensive cross-cultural study of what constitutes the moral mind. He found that there are five universal qualities that form the basis of moral diversity—an analysis of morality that perfectly conceptualizes what we espouse in our tradition:

  1. Harm/Care – A moral person has compassion for those who are vulnerable and antipathy for those who do harm.
  2. Fairness/Reciprocity – A moral person makes judgments and deals with others free from arbitrary discrimination (the Golden Rule).
  3. In-group/Loyalty – A moral person willingly adheres to, respects, and is loyal to community, order, and tradition.
  4. Authority/respect – A moral person gives deference to his or her seniors in age, position, experience, and knowledge.
  5. Purity/sanctity – A moral person believes that you can attain virtue by controlling your senses.

Professor Haidt found that liberal people are slightly more concerned than conservatives with the first two qualities of moral diversity but that conservatives, though slightly less concerned with the first two qualities, are much more concerned than liberals with the last three.
Because he was giving his talk at TED, an institution with liberal objectives, and was making a case for moral diversity, Professor Haidt felt the need to explain how in-group loyalty, for which liberals have much less regard, is also an important moral quality. He did this through a famous triptych by Hieronymus Bosch called The Garden of Earthly Delights.
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
The first panel is of the Garden of Eden, where everything is prim and proper, the second panel shows its erotic derangement, and the third displays its dark transformation and degradation.
To help convey his point that a morally diverse person is not iconoclastic but has a reasonable affinity for in-group loyalty, Professor Haidt made the fitting comparison that the second panel was like the 1960s and the third panel its aftermath, its degradation. His point struck a chord with me. I went to Haight Ashbury in 1970 looking for the peace and love of the ’60s (the second panel) but found that it had already morphed into a degraded, strung out, and angry drug culture (the third panel) that was even worse than the relatively puritanical Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver*[2] 1950s (the first panel) that I and so many others wanted to change or transcend.
Professor Haidt cannot by any means be pigeonholed as a conservative. He knows and acknowledges both the weakness of conservative thinking — “Conservatives speak for the institutions and traditions and seek order even at the cost of the those at the bottom” — and the flaw of the liberal mindset — “Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed, want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.”
He concludes that both conservatives and liberals have something substantial to contribute, and that the most highly evolved people are those who are morally diverse, as represented in his template for the moral mind.
What I find most helpful in Professor Haidt’s discussion is that it provides a template to help reconcile Śrīla Prabhupāda’s apparently contradictory social viewpoint: his strong affinity for the social traditions of India in contrast to his sometimes liberal outlook toward their application, especially in terms of his statements about women. Bhakti Vikāśa Swami tries to reconcile Śrīla Prabhupāda’s conservative statements with his liberal statements in regard to women in ISKCON by explaining that the more liberal statements were only made initially, to encourage people in devotional service, but that now, as the movement has matured, Śrīla Prabhupāda would certainly have insisted that all women in ISKCON should be more or less limited to domestic roles and strictly follow traditional behavior and etiquette.
I prefer to see it that Śrīla Prabhupāda said both things because he was morally diverse. He saw the need to institute the tradition of varṇāśrama with its social mores, but he also had a strong sense of care and justice. He balanced his sense of the ideal with a concern to encourage and empower his female disciples—or anyone, for that matter—with a strong consideration for who they were now, in the moment: Vaiṣṇava members of an ancient tradition but born in a modern milieu. And it is obvious to me that he would do the same today out of a similar sense of compassion and fairness and also for the fact that few in the First World would come to Kṛṣṇa consciousness if “purdah”[3] were the face of our preaching.
Bhakti Vikāśa Swami argues that if we had senior women who held to the most traditional line of women’s deportment and temples organized strictly according to these same strictures, our preaching would be more successful. I think this points out a weakness of Mahārāja’s presentation—that his preaching has not been on the front lines of the First World and that he thus has only limited realization of the deep sincerity and mindset of the people whom preachers in the West confront. For his view to have credibility, he or his followers would have to lead the way and show others how to impact the First World with his tone and presentation.
Śrīla Prabhupāda was on the front lines and credited much of his success in the West to his liberality. Those who have successfully followed suit as preachers in the First World also seem morally diverse. That is not to say that his presentations and expectations then or what he would have demanded now were liberal or divorced from the tradition. They were not; but they were tempered—or relevantly applied—out of fairness to the times in which people were living and out of compassion for their souls.
I appreciate many of the points in Mahārāja’s book about the relevance of the traditional views of Indian culture, especially its promotion of the role of mothers—as would many of the senior women in ISKCON whom he calls “suffragettes.” He has a number of legitimate concerns and important things to say.[4] But I don’t think drawing sharp lines or seeing the issue in black and white is the wholesome or realized approach that Śrīla Prabhupāda espoused. Śrīla Prabhupāda was able to preach a strong affinity for the tradition without losing sight of its purpose: to inspire people in Kṛṣṇa consciousness through a practical application of its teachings, often in accordance with time, place, and circumstance.
At the end of last summer, one incident highlighted to me the necessity for Bhakti Vikāśa Swami to adjust his presentation in a practical way. When I am in New York, I regularly visit the harināma saṅkīrtana at Union Square, and one day I noticed that a young woman, born in the movement, had joined the chanting group. She had been there for several months participating in kīrtana and book distribution and was about to return home, perhaps to attend college. Rāma Rāya, an exemplary Vaiṣṇava and strict brahmacari, turned to me and glorified her, expressing how much her contribution would be missed. He described her as talented, dedicated, and chaste, and I could tell that she conducted herself in an exemplary manner.
At the time, I was reading Bhakti Vikāśa Swami’s book, and the thought came to me how he might castigate her parents for granting the young woman even this little “non-varṇāśrama” independence, when in fact her parents, who are strict devotees, were just being practical and morally diverse. They had raised their child with Kṛṣṇa conscious values with what appeared to be reasonable boundaries and, as dedicated and strict devotees, had set an example for her to follow. Out of concern for their daughter’s situation and needs, they had engaged her in practical devotional service. What in the world could possibly be wrong with that? Wasn’t that, in fact, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mood?
So, what about all the direct quotes by Śrīla Prabhupāda describing varṇāśrama and its traditionalist values? If that’s what Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted, then by all means his followers should take up the service to implement it and show others its value—but only as long as they don’t, in trying to implement it, lose their heart and kick too many good, sincere, Kṛṣṇa conscious women aside—women who can be good mothers with love and respect for tradition but who also need to be reasonably empowered according to their natures and karmic situations.
Bhakti Vikāśa Swami is an excellent writer and a substantial preacher in ISKCON. His voice for conservative values is an important one. And he does have a point. There are radical voices in the modern world that don’t represent Śrīla Prabhupāda and whose influence in ISKCON is unwanted, and people do need to be educated in the value of tradition and what Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted. I just think Mahārāja would be more successful if his vision were a bit more morally diverse and he showed the fairness, compassion, and practicality that Śrīla Prabhupāda demonstrated in spreading this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement.
[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind
[2] Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver were popular situation comedies that showed the perfectly patriarchal intact family life in the postwar 1950s where everything was at least superficially functional.
[3] Bhakti Vikāśa Swami did not use the word purdah, nor I am meaning to use it in a pejorative way. I use it because it seems the best way to communicate the admittedly radically traditional social structure that Bhakti Vikāśa Swami feels Śrīla Prabhupāda would want to impose indiscriminately in present-day ISKCON, even in the First World.
[4] I too have written about this topic: http://wavesofdevotion.com/index.php?s=mind.+mothers&searchsubmit=Go

Monday Morning Greetings #51 – One Thing to Forget, Two things to Remember

December 19th, 2016

Today’s Monday Morning Greeting is one of my favorite excerpts from Greetings from Vṛndāvana.
One Thing to Forget, Two things to Remember
October 30, 2002

Omen at Rāsa-sthālī: Walking north on the parikrama path from the Narasiṁha temple I honor the rock candy given by the Narasiṁha pūjārī. To wash our hands, Vaiśeṣika Prabhu and I turn into the Rāsa-sthālī forest area (the place of Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa’s spring rāsa dance) where there is a water tap on the outside wall of the fortress-like temple compound. Before leaving, Vaiśeṣika Prabhu looks above the tap on the wall to decipher a saying written in Hindi. All of the sudden, I see an unusual furry ball whiz above his head. It happened so fast I thought that someone had thrown something, but it’s alive. A bird crashes against the wall, falls to the ground, quivers for a moment, and stops. It’s dead!
Eerie! I can’t help but think what this means. Is it as simple as a random bird’s death? And if it is, then why did this happen right as we entered the solitary forest? Is there something more to this omen? We continue our walk. Vaiśeṣika gets the message we need to hear: “Just see how flickering this world is!”
We continue walking north through monkey-land on the west side of Govardhana. In the distance one monkey holds her limp young child—another unusual sight. She puts her baby down. It’s dead! Whew! I have never seen even one death in countless parikramas, but now two in five minutes. Strange! What does this mean?
Vaiśeṣika spontaneously quotes in Sanskrit from the Bhāgavatam, and then translates: “Four things give us evidence of the flickering nature of this world: hearing, direct experience, inference, and traditional wisdom.”
Today we are learning of the temporal nature of this world through direct experience. But are we actually learning? A little more than a year ago I was in lower Manhattan when the World Trade Center collapsed. If an entire city didn’t get the message of this “flickering world,” and I didn’t get the message, then what will I learn now from a kamikaze bird at Rāsa-sthālī? 
He quotes again: “There is one thing to forget and two things to remember. Forget what you have done for others. Remember what others have done for you. And remember death!”

Monday Morning Greetings #50 – The Ten Foundational Principles of Yoga

December 12th, 2016

The Ten Foundational Principles of Yoga

  1. The goal of yoga and all spiritual paths is to end suffering.
  1. Reality is beautiful and therefore all suffering is caused by illusion. For example, the greatest fear is death, but death itself is an illusion – the illusion of non-existence. Thus free from illusion we see the beauty of the eternal soul.
  1. Illusion is caused by the distorted or impure mind, or the myriad of selfish thoughts.
  1. To free our self from illusion and to alleviate suffering the mind must be brought to sattva. Sattva literally means “the nature of being” or the true nature of something. What is the true nature of the mind? The mind is like a lens or mirror and thus its true nature is to be clean, free from distortion and perfectly perceptive of what is before it. Therefore when the mind is in sattva we are able to perceive and live in our eternal spiritual nature.
  1. Yoga or meditation is the technique or method to bring the mind to sattva. Its strategy is simple. As the mind is distorted by a myriad of thoughts, if we can just steadily concentrate on one thought, then all other thoughts will gradually quell and the mind will slowly morph into a higher level of perception and contentment.
  1. When, for a prolonged and uninterrupted period of concentration, the mind is so fixed in meditation that we are not even cognizant of anything outside the object of our mediation samādhi, or the goal of yoga, has been reached.
  1. We can steady the mind in one of two ways: by our intelligence, the strong understanding that it is good for us to fix our mind on the object of our meditation; or by our heart, a strong attachment to the object of our meditation.
  1. To be connected to an object of contemplation through some feeling (emotion) is superior to being connected by our obligation or understanding (the intelligence) because it is naturally more absorbing.
  1. Mantra has thus been the preferred object of meditation through the ages for yogis because it is God in sound.[i] Being part of God we thus have a natural relationship with mantra and by focusing on mantra our love and absorption for mantra naturally increases. It is also preferred because the mantra is not just an inert prop to help steady the mind, but it is an all-powerful person that can reciprocate with our meditational devotion by helping us remove the obstacles to meditation.
  1. As the most consummate emotion is devotion or love, bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion, is the topmost yoga.


[i] It is described in the Yoga Sūtras that God and the expression or name of God are non-different.

Monday Morning Greetings #49 – Hope Against Hope

December 5th, 2016

“Hope against hope” is an interesting phrase, but what does it have to do with spiritual life? “Hope against hope” is Śrīla Prabhupāda’s English translation of the Sanskrit term āśā-bandha, which literally means that one’s āśā or “hope” cannot be bandha or “bound” and it has everything to do with a successful spiritual life. It is essential.
Hope means aspiration. What is against hope? Trying to attain Kṛṣṇa by our own effort. In other words, to think we can earn Kṛṣṇa by what we can pay for Him in terms of our practice and determination means that we have cheapened Kṛṣṇa. His power and sweetness is unfathomable and thus far beyond any effort to achieve Him no matter how fixed and steady our practice.
If God is priceless, then what possibly can we do to attain Him? God must be the most kind or merciful, the greatest and most endearing of all good qualities. And mercy is the only thing that can close the gap between the price of something one covets and one’s abject inability to earn it. God’s mercy thus is our hope against hope.
The mood of “hope against hope” is exemplified by Akrūra as he begins his journey to see the Lord. First reflecting on his own abilities he has no hope, for the Lord is uttamaśloka, one whose unlimited qualities are worthy to be praised in the choicest poetry.
“Since I am a materialistic person absorbed simply in sense gratification, I think it is as difficult for me to have gotten this opportunity to see Lord Uttamaḥśloka as it would be for one born of a śūdra to be allowed to recite the Vedic mantras.” Bhāg. 10.38.4
He then begins to reflect on the qualities of Kṛṣṇa and gains immense hope, for the Lord is Acyuta, infallible, which means His mercy also no bounds.
“But enough of such thoughts! After all, even a fallen soul like me can have the chance to behold Acyuta (the Infallible Supreme Lord), for one of the conditioned souls being swept along in the river of time may sometimes reach the shore.” Bhāg. 10.38.5
Akrūra thus shows how to reconcile these apparently opposite sentiments. When we think of ourselves we naturally have no hope, but when we think of God and His causeless mercy we gain hope.
This dual reflection on our self (no hope) and on God (hope) is essential for the practicing theist. If we don’t see our self realistically in relation to God we will not have the requisite humility to beg for mercy and if we don’t see God reasonably, that He has boundless mercy, why would we even try?
The practical application of this principle is clearly expressed by Śrīla Prabhupāda in his commentary on Nārada’s failed second attempt to have an audience with God, which was apparently done more mechanically than his first attempt that was successful. Śrīla Prabhupāda clearly describes the appropriate mood required to rise above mechanical chanting.
“When he pleases, being satisfied with the sincere attempt of devotional service depending clearly on the mercy of the Lord, then he may be seen out of His own accord[1] Bhāg. 1.6.19, Purport
How beautifully said. We must endeavor with the hope that we can be successful not because we deserve accomplishment, but because we may attract the Lord’s mercy by our humble yearning. This tension between our cognizance of the unlimited worth of the divine and our hope against hope to attain Him is the heart of a successful Vaisnava’s prayers. It is best exemplified by the mood expressed by Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī in a reference cited by Śrīla Prabhupāda in The Nectar of Devotion to specifically illustrate this quality of āśā-bandha.
“I have no love for Kṛṣṇa, nor for the causes of developing love of Kṛṣṇa – namely, hearing and chanting. And the process of bhaktiyoga, by which one is always thinking of Kṛṣṇa and fixing His lotus feet in the heart, is also lacking in me. As far as philosophical knowledge or pious works are concerned, I don’t see any opportunity for me to execute such activities. But above all, I am not even born of a nice family. Therefore I must simply pray to You, Gopījana-vallabha [Kṛṣṇa, maintainer and beloved of the gopīs]. I simply wish and hope that some way or other I may be able to approach Your lotus feet, and this hope is giving me pain, because I think myself quite incompetent to approach that transcendental goal of life.” – Prayer of Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī quoted in Chapter 18 of The Nectar of Devotion
Although I am unqualified I pray one day to humbly imbibe this mood of hope against hope by the causeless mercy.
[1] I had a thought about Nārada’s two attempts to gain audience of the Lord and why the second failed although he exactly repeated what he had do to achieve the first. The first attempt was done in utter desperation for he was a parentless child wandering in the forest seeking the shelter of God. After achieving success the second attempt was perhaps tinged with the misconception that his success was dependent on his endeavor and lacked the same dependence. Thus Śrīla Prabhupāda’s comment on the second attempt quoted above.

Monday Morning Greeting #48 – Darśana: Seeing God

November 28th, 2016

The devotees were puzzled. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta could not see without his glasses so why was he viewing the deities everyday without them? His reply:
“We are not the subject and God is thus not an object for our enjoyment. Rather Kṛṣṇa is the subject and we are an object for His enjoyment. I don’t need my glasses for darśana for darśana means He is seeing us.” *
This principle is poignantly illustrated in the story of “The Wives of the Brāhmaṇas Delivered”. They were always hankering to see Kṛṣṇa and after years of yearning they finally got His darśana. It is interesting how this is described:
“Lord Kṛṣṇa, who witnesses the thoughts of all creatures, understood how those ladies had abandoned all worldly hopes and come there simply to see Him. Thus He addressed them as follows with a smile upon His face.” Bhāg. 10.23.24
What is important here is that it is Kṛṣṇa, not the wives of the brāhmaṇas, who is being described as the seer. It is also noteworthy as to what He saw — tyakta-sarvāśāḥ — that they, the wives of the brāhmaṇas, had given up all material hopes and desires. And finally, it is significant how Kṛṣṇa reacted. Such love brought Him pleasure and He smiled. Thus, darśana, going before the Lord, reveals the essence of bhakti. We go before the Lord not just to see His form, but for Him to see our hearts for His pleasure.
This type of darśana is the heart of bhakti and it should be reflected consciously in all our devotional activities, such as chanting. Real chanting is thus not just repeating syllables, but offering our heart transformed into sound to God for His pleasure. In other words, we mostly chant as way to allow Kṛṣṇa to hear and see our devotion.
This concept of darśana, becoming an object of God’s pleasure, was unexpectedly reinforced in a video I saw when I was visiting one God-brother in Vṛndāvana. It was a talk by Śrīla Prabhupāda’s god-brother B.R. Śrīdhar Mahārāja, where he humbly talked about his experience of “divine knowledge”. I understood his use of the term “divine knowledge’ to be a translation of divya-jñāna, the initial experience of enlightenment. He describes that moment humbly.
“I was the subject and then I became the object for Kṛṣṇa. I was captured.”
What is described here is the shift of consciousness at the moment of liberation or enlightenment where one is impelled and inspired to take oneself out of the center, where one finally sees oneself fully as the object for God’s pleasure. When he mentions “captured” the term is used in the sense that out of intense attraction and affection for Kṛṣṇa one moves helplessly, but happily, according to His will. Such joyful, dependence is in fact the template for any real love, for without being impelled to follow the desires of a worthy other, without putting someone else in the center, what is the question of love?
So that is the challenge of bhakti and I accepted that challenge of darśana in a bit of a unique way. I sit every morning in Govardhana for my chanting directly facing Govardhana Hill. Today, I consciously tried not to view the sacred mount as an object of my vision. Rather I viewed Govardhana as the subject or center and myself on His periphery as an object for His pleasure. Of course, this can’t be done artificially, but just the concept and the attempt to be seen by God, rather to see or enjoy God really soothed my heart. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta thus summed up the essence of darśana:
“Don’t try to see God, but act in a way that God wants to see you.”
* I have only paraphrased Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s statement from memory.

Monday Morning Greetings #47 – In Memory of Dr. Fakir Mohan

November 21st, 2016

We are saddened by the passing of our friend and well-wisher, Dr Fakir Mohan Prabhu, the Vaiṣṇava saint and scholar.
I met Prabhu about 15 or 20 years ago. I was staying at ISKCON Govardhana and was told that an elderly and somewhat renowned Vaiṣṇava from Orissa had arrived. I went to greet him to pay respects. But as I introduced myself he moved a few steps to the left and when I again went to face him he moved again to his right. I was puzzled until someone whispered that he would not step on a Vaiṣṇava’s shadow so as the sun was to my back he had to move every time I would directly face him.
The next morning, we asked him to give class, but before he sat on the seat he bowed to every sannyāsi affectionately clasping their hands and in a heartfelt voice murmuring, “Bless me I know nothing.”
So, he stayed with us for a short time at Govardhana and in this way, we developed an affectionate relationship. It is impressive to meet someone genuinely humble, but what is more impressive is when such a person has every reason to be proud. He not only was a lifelong celibate, but also the chairman of the Department of Sanskrit at Utkal University, and arguably one the top scholars on the history of Vaiṣṇavism, having completed his PhD on the subject. Most important he was a pure devotee of Kṛṣṇa. His initiated name itself is the emblem of humility as “Fakir” is not even a Sanskrit name, but the Urdū or Muslim name for “beggar”. He personally told me its origins:
Before he was born his mother had several children, but they all died shortly after birth. When he was born, fearing that God would again take their child, his parents gave him the name “Fakir” or “beggar” so God wouldn’t take such a forlorn person.
He also told me how he joined the Gauḍīya Maṭh. He was naturally interested in bhakti from a very young age and left home at the age of fourteen to join the Gauḍīya Maṭh in Purī, where his family lived. His father came to take him, but he threatened his father, “If you let me join I will stay here in the maṭh near home, otherwise I will run away and join a maṭh in a far distance place and you may never see me again.” His father agreed. I found that interesting how an otherwise relatively meek person who is saintly can also be bold for the sake of their convictions. Shortly afterwards his guru surprisingly mostly kept his name by just naming him Fakir Mohan dāsa.
After I met him I would see him in Vṛndāvana often as he started coming there every Kārtika. He was the caretaker or sevaite of Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Mādhava, the ancestral deities of Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, the deities Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura glorifies in his famous bhajana, “Jaya Rādhā-Mādhava Kuñjabihari”. He would leave Them on the altar of the Kṛṣṇa-Balarāma Mandir where they could have pleasure of seeing the international devotees, which was one of the visions of Śrīla Bhaktivinoda in Mayapur, that people from all over the world will soon join together chanting “Jaya Sacidānanda, Gaurahari!”
I was living at the time in a place called Satsvarūpa’s House, a strange moniker as Satsvarūpa Mahārāja had only lived there once. It was in the colony behind Bon Mahārāja’s college and Dr. Fakir Mohan was my neighbor during Kārtika. One evening I ran into him walking in the street outside my house. He asked me if I knew where Bhakti Caitanya’s House was (another strange moniker) as Pārtha Sārathī Mahārāja was staying there and he wanted to offer his respects. I told him that I did know where he lived, and he enthusiastically waved for me to show him.
We often take our god-brothers and the devotees for granted, but here was a very advanced devotee who earnestly sought them all out to offer his respects – a good example for us all.
We arrived at Bhakti Caitanya’s House and Pārtha Sārathī Mahārāja asked Dr. Fakir Mohan to chant Maṅgala-gītā, a beautiful Oriyan song describing the separation of the gopīs when Akrūra was taking Kṛṣṇa to Mathurā. His singing was extraordinary, so powerful and devotional, as powerful in force and devotion as anyone I have ever heard. We very much enjoyed his sharing of his heartfelt devotion. Pārtha Sārathī Mahārāja then apologetically informed Dr. Fakir Mohan that his mother, aunt, brother, and sister were visiting next door in the MVT, and as he had basically neglected them for so many years since joining the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement it was important that he be punctual in his visit with them during their stay. Immediately Dr. Fakir Mohan said with bubbling enthusiasm, “Then I will also go! I will also go!”
When we entered the apartment where Mahārāja’s family was staying his dignified British mother from Oxford came out to greet us. To my remembrance she was a reserved lady with curly grey hair and a simple one-piece cotton dress from her neck to the ankles. To our amazement Dr. Fakir Mohan immediately paid his daṇḍavat praṇāmas, his prostrated obeisances. Pārtha Sārathī was shocked. As Dr. Fakir Mohan arose he apologetically told his mother, “This is Dr. Fakir Mohan, a great Vaiṣṇava saint and scholar. He is the Chairman of the Department of Sankirt at Utkal University, a Sangeet ācārya, and a lifelong celibate saint.”
I will never forget Dr. Fakir Mohan’s simple reply: “This is our culture.” He then paused and with conviction added, “No, we feel it!” He went on to quote verse after verse citing how if a person becomes a pure devotee then “generation after generation, 14 generations are liberated,” justifying why the mother of Partha Sārathī Mahārāja was worthy of his worship.
When Dr. Fakir Mohan joined the maṭh his only joy was to serve the senior Vaiṣṇavas. He told me that he prayed to spend his life that way, but his guru, seeing how intelligent he was, sent him back to school. And despite returning after each graduation wanting to stay in the āśrama for service, his guru sent him back again and again until he received his PhD in Sanskrit. He taught for many years, but his heart was mostly into the service of guru and the Vaiṣṇavas.
A few years ago, I got a surprise call from him when I was in Purī that he wanted to attend my Purī retreat. He would then come almost every year and sit humbly for all of the classes. Finally he agreed to our demand and would give one or two classes himself during the retreat. Two stuck in my mind.
One year the Sanskrit students from Gopīparāṇadhana Prabhu’s class were attending our yātrā. I told Dr. Fakir Mohan that they had come and that as he was a Sanskrit teacher he might be interested in encouraging them. He started our morning Bhāgavatam class that year looking in their direction and posing the question, “Who is śāstra-jña (the knower of the śāstra)?” He then looked at them and with a sweeping forward gesture of his hand bellowed loudly with pronounced enunciation, “One who practices!”
Another year I asked him to please speak on the holy name. I had heard that one year in Bhubaneswar he was asked to lecture every day on Bhaktivinoda’s songs and he started with one bhajana that describes, “This temporary material world is full of suffering, chant the holy name as your only business,” and he lectured on that verse and the holy name for three years continuously. But that day instead of lecturing on the holy name he lectured on Jagannātha prasādam telling the devotees to eat more and more Jagannātha prasādam for their spiritual advancement and his glorification had no end. I had wished he would have spoken on the holy name, but I couldn’t help but appreciate his absolute faith in Jagannātha and His prasādam.
I think I could go on and on re-telling the times I was fortunate to be in his association and the lessons he imparted and the example he set, but I do like to keep these Monday Morning Greetings digestible for those of you rushing off to work, and many people have commented that they appreciate that. I will finish with my last encounter.
He came again this year to year to Govardhana for Govardhana a Pūjā as he always does during Kārtika and as usual he greeted me very affectionately and respectfully, more than I deserve. He had been an incredibly vibrant person for a person of his age, but this year I could see that his health had gone down. He had previously told me that he had six heart attacks over the last few years and in every case when he had gone unconscious he was still murmuring Hare Kṛṣṇa, as the doctors later related to him. Anyway, old age, somewhere around ninety, had gotten to him and he told me that for the first time he wasn’t giving classes. When it was time to bathe the Hill, and in Govardhana there is a large mound dirt right opposite our āśrama that takes us right up to the Hill, I had the honor of gently and affectionately taking his hand and helping him wade through the crowds so that he could bathe Girirāja first with the other senior devotees. He would have never pushed he way forward himself. I watched as with great devotion he massaged Girirāja with oil and then receded back in the crowd to listen to the kīrtana and look lovingly at his Lord.
This evening I received the following text from Mādhavānanda Prabhu:
“At about 6:46 PM tonight, the world became a darker place. Pūjyapāda Fakir Mohan Mahārāja left this world, surrounded by devotees chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa and crying. He had a prasāda tulasī leaf on his mouth, the Govardhana-śilā given to him by his gurudeva was on his forehead, on his chest was a prasāda chaddar from the ancient deity of Ṭoṭā-Gopīnātha, there was a full plate of śālagrāmaśilās by his head. Also on his chest was a silk rope that had been used to tie Lord Jagannātha to His Ratha-yātrā cart in Purī. There was also a Jagannātha prasāda Gīta-govinda khandua on his chest, the cloth with verses written on it from Jayadeva Gosvāmī’s Gīta-govinda. He was our great friend, teacher, and well-wisher. Today there is great pain in our hearts.”

Monday Morning Greetings #45 – I want to be a Vaisnava!

November 7th, 2016

Amidst the throngs of seemingly ordinary people here in Vṛndāvana just one old Vaiṣṇava sādhu has to smile and greet you in his raspy voice “Jai Ho, Mahārāja!” and you realize why you have come to this place. Does that sound sentimental? After living here for more than forty years that is my strong conviction, that the endearing voices and bountiful smiles of such beautiful people inform us powerfully of the real goal in life, to become simple hearted, happy, and in a mood of service. Yes, the beautiful things in life are simple and sweet, because they are born not from opulence, but from the hearts of devotion. And that’s the glory of Vṛndāvana, the jewels of mādhurya (sweetness) that are hidden in the hearts of the real Vrajavāsīs.* Yesterday I mined one.

Govinda Kuṇḍa is just a forty-minute walk down the parikramā path from my own place near Dāna-ghāṭī (the place of the tax pastime). It sits next to the side of Govardhana Hill. It’s where Indra performed the ceremonial bath of Kṛṣṇa to beg pardon for his offense and whose bath waters formed this beautiful pond according to Kṛṣṇa lore. Five of us took a late morning outing there to visit this small sādhu hamlet.

Our visit eventually took us down a small road off the main path on the southern side of the kuṇḍa that ended at a yellow iron gate with a sign above announcing the place as the āśrama of the renowned late Vaiṣṇava saint and mystic Manohar Bābā. We entered and walked straight alongside the āśrama building under an enclosed pavilion to the end of the property where we faced an old indiscreet closed wood door on our left side. We cautiously pushed the door open and entered a dimly light hall and the altar of small Śrī Madana-mohana deities. One simple sādhu was sitting there chanting, but he immediately stood up to greet us and beamed, “prasādam, prasādam” enthusiastically pointing our way through a corridor to the back of the property where their kitchen and prasādam hall stood.

As we entered the rustic kitchen pavilion of this ancient āśrama, Sītānāth Bābā, the recently installed mahant of the place, was standing over an open fire vigorously stirring a wok of vegetables. When he saw us enter he turned and also beamed “prasādam, prasādam” earnestly pointing to a single plank table with chairs for our group all facing where Sītānāth was cooking as another joyful sādhu fed us a sumptuous meal. Sītānāth then suddenly left his cooking to scurry around to find whatever he could in the āśrama to please us, from their special stash of sweets for guests, to even hot cow’s milk at the end.

We felt so welcomed. I just loved their culture, especially their smiles that were worn almost as badges of their faith. And what was their faith? It was the happiness of prīti or love, their deep conviction that pleasure is not to enjoy or control the world, but to genuinely serve God and his devotees. And that’s what Vraja* really is and that is what I really hanker for, the simple heart of service reflected in the beautiful smile of the true residents here.

Once when a faithful disciple of Śrīla Prabhupāda said to him, “You are greatest Vaiṣṇava!” he became grave and emphatically said, “No! Vaiṣṇava is not an ordinary thing!” Of course, part of being of Vaiṣṇava is humility and in one’s deep hunger for the service of God one naturally feels a lack of devotion. Indeed, Śrīla Prabhupāda was one of the greatest Vaiṣṇava, but he highlighted the rarity and value of a simple heart and mood of service.

Being here in Vraja and being inspired by the Vaiṣṇava’s here, my chanting has taken up a singular prayer for this auspicious month of Kārtika:

“I want to be a Vaiṣṇava!”

* Either one born in Vṛndāvana or one who lives there and truly imbibes its mood.

** Another name for Vṛndāvana.

Monday Morning Greetings #43 – How a Bhaktivedanta Purport Saved Me from a Mental Hospital

October 24th, 2016

I am fortunate to have had very wonderful parents. In fact, my 96-year-old mother is still alive and when I am in the USA I try to stay with her for a couple of days every month. Why am I saying this? I am about to tell the story of when they had me kidnapped to save me from being a Hare Kṛṣṇa, which they were convinced at the time was a cult, and I would not want anyone to think bad of them in the least. They were very decent people. They kidnapped me over 40 years ago when us young, passionate, dedicated devotees couldn’t always communicate properly the profound truths that we were experiencing, especially to our parents, and when most people, such as my parents, had very little frame of reference to understand an exotic new religious movement in America. Anyway, out of love for me they tried to save me from something they thought was harmful, and unfortunately, not being properly informed, resorted to deprogramming. Looking back, I equally blame myself for that miscommunication. *
I am not going to tell the whole story here. I am just going to highlight the part of the story where the recollection and sharing of a specific Bhaktivedanta purport saved me from being committed to Kings County Mental Hospital. Here it goes.
After being kidnapped from the temple in Dallas, Texas by the famous deprogrammer Ted Patrick, I was eventually able to feign that he was successful in his attempt to deprogram me. I was thus sent home, but under the watch of his assistant, a thug named Goose**. When my father and Goose took me shopping to get new western clothes at Kings Plaza, the largest shopping mall in Brooklyn at the time, I made a run for it at a choice moment when Goose went into the bank to change money. Somehow as I was running out of the mall with my father chasing me, the police nearby apprehended me thinking I was a thief. But when they asked my age and understood that I was 24-years-old, they initially wanted to let me go free. On my father’s insistence that I was crazy, however, they finally agreed to take me to a mental hospital to determine if I should be committed. I was booked at the nearest police station, handcuffed, and taken to the mental hospital to be interviewed by the psychiatrist who would make the final decision on my mental status. My parents were interviewed first to register their complaint. I was left in the waiting hall outside his office. I paced back and forth chanting on my fingers among the other people there (my beads had been taken), many in the process of being committed. I specifically remembered one lady talking to the wall as if it were her boyfriend who jilted her and another man strapped to a wheel chair in a straight jacket screaming and kicking as violently and angry as anyone I have ever seen. The interview with my parents was soon finished and the psychiatrist called me in.
I sat down directly opposite the psychiatrist as he carefully examined me. Dr. Cohen then looked me in the eyes and asked in earnestness, “Are you hallucinating?”
“Why do you ask that?” I replied.
“I saw you pacing back and forth in the hallway talking to yourself.”
I must have looked crazy, I thought. When I returned home I had no western clothes after my parents confiscated my devotional attire. In fact that’s why my parents took me shopping. Temporarily all they could find around the house were extremely baggy jeans before they were in fashion, an old high school sports team jacket with vinyl like sleeves and a felt like front, and a strange fez that my father was gifted by a Pakistani insurance salesman. To make my appearance even more strange I was pacing back and forth rapidly shaking my head back and forth in ecstasy as I was chanting out loud “my rounds” of the Hare Kṛṣṇa maha-mantra and keeping track by counting on my fingers. I must have looked, well, crazy!
But somehow in response to the psychiatrist I had the gumption to look him right in the eye and in those good old early days of Hare Kṛṣṇa missionary zeal, enthusiasm, and confidence – “fired up” as we would say – repeat exactly what I had just read in a Bhaktivedanta purport from the third canto of the Bhāgavatam just the day before I was kidnapped:
“Although I am not hallucinating it can’t be said that I am seeing the same as you. Just like one who is not a theist sees a rose as separate from God and made only for his own enjoyment. A devotee, however, sees that flower as the energy of God and meant to be used in his service. And therefore although I am not hallucinating it cannot be said that I AM SEEING THE SAME THING AS YOU!”
As I was repeating those last words I slowed down my speech for emphasis simultaneously pointing my finger at the psychiatrist. The jaw of the psychiatrist dropped and he paused before gathering his words.
“That’s very intelligent. I think your parents are crazy!”
I could imagine the fervor in which my parents presented their case and the contrast between my lucid and clear explanation practically word-for-word from Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books. He released me.
So that’s how Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books saved me from being committed to a mental hospital.
Rathi Kṛṣṇa recently found the exact purport that I had studied and repeated to the psychiatrist that one fateful morning forty-one years ago. I will share it verbatim from Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purport. I think the readership of Monday Morning Greetings will value the degree of its clarity and force that even a psychiatrist, who probably wasn’t even a theist, appreciated its profundity at a time when the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement was still not even recognized as an established religion.
“[…] A conditioned soul sees a very beautiful rose, and he thinks that the nice aromatic flower should be used for his own sense gratification. This is one kind of vision. A liberated soul, however, sees the same flower as a reflection of the Supreme Lord. He thinks, ‘This beautiful flower is made possible by the superior energy of the Supreme Lord; therefore it belongs to the Supreme Lord and should be utilized in His service.’ […]” Bhag. 3.27.13, Purport
* Epilogue of sorts—after the kidnapping my parents visited a few years later in India. They became very appreciative of what I was doing as did all my family.
** “Goose is big, about six-foot-five, and strong as iron. He wears his hair long, with a sweatband around it. His arms are tattooed, and when he goes out on a mission he wears heavy boots, a leather vest, and a black leather gloves like a strangler. I think all that is part of psyching himself up. At heart he’s really a gentle young man, but when he gets riled, he has known to become aggressive. That night he got carried away.” – From Ted Patrick’s book, Let Our Children Go!

Monday Morning Greetings #42 – On Scholarship

October 17th, 2016

Scholarship is underrated. Scholarship is overrated.  I just can’t make up my mind. When I see conscious choices in behavior and policy based on whim rather than the rule of śāstra and witness the lack of depth in spiritual discourse in the general devotee community, I bemoan the lack of qualified Vaiṣṇava scholars to guide us and I become convinced we underrate the value of study. But when I see learned so-called scholars miss the most rudimentary truths of Vaiṣṇava behavior, I bemoan their learning as useless and I become convinced that scholarship is overrated. Just how important is the role of scholarship in the practice of devotional service?
Scholarship is underrated
Śrīla Prabhupāda was a Sanskrit scholar, at least enough of one to be prolific in quality translations of standard bhakti texts, such as the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Bhagavad-gītā, and the books of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī. In many ways the basis of his mission was to distribute knowledge in the form of those books. He also implored his devotees to read his books from different angles and chastised his disciples that “we are not just an export business,” warning his disciples that they must not only distribute his books, but also vigorously study them. Although the conclusion of those books is simple, that Kṛṣṇa is God and that we must fully surrender to Him, it is a conclusion that is realized only after years of sincere study.  Otherwise why would the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu proclaim that the topmost devotee is one who has both strong faith and is well versed in śāstra (sacred texts). They are obviously not unrelated. We thus need learned devotees to give integrity to the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement both by their spiritual attainment and their ability to enliven others and move them towards such attainment.  Our need for scholarship is thus definitely underrated.
Scholarship is overrated
What is the purpose of scholarship or knowledge on the path of bhakti? Like any path, you can’t begin to understand and have faith in what to do without knowledge. Knowledge is thus also the basis of moving forward with confidence and determination in bhakti.  Knowledge is also required not only to know what to do, but also how to do it, to know the exact method of our practice (bhakti sādhana). But knowledge also has its limits, especially when you consider the nature of the object to be known or attained, which is Kṛṣṇa.  God is personal and like any person is only superficially known by analysis. That Kṛṣṇa, like any person, reveals Himself fully only in love or relationship is affirmed by Kṛṣṇa Himself:
“That very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend and can therefore understand the transcendental mystery of this science. (Bhagavad-gītā 4.3)
The limits of scholarship in gaining full knowledge is directly and powerfully espoused in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad:
“Only unto those great souls who have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.” (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 6.23) *
The import of Vedic knowledge is to free oneself from false ego. Here it explains that unless one is actually attempting to do that by surrendering to guru and Kṛṣṇa, one will just not have the frame of reference to recognize that same core principle when studying the vast and complex Vedas, just like a woman who is a PhD in child pedagogy will not be gifted with a deep understanding of motherhood despite her study unless she is first a responsible mother. The above text also informs us that deep insight into the infinitely deep Vedas are only possible when gifted with such insight by the mercy of God who sees in one a sincere desire to be transformed by such knowledge, and not by one who is just interested in the ego gratification of being learned.
Scholarship is thus vastly overrated as a barometer of spiritual attainment because one who is not surrendered to guru and Kṛṣṇa and thus approaches the sacred texts only for mastery and influence misses its true import and simply becomes proud. Unfortunately, this has too often been the history of scholarship in modern day Vaiṣṇavism where people who study often lack the upbringing of service and humility to inoculate themselves from such motive and misconception.
In conclusion, I would like to offer my profound respect to the late Vaiṣṇava scholar Gopīparāṇadhana Prabhu who showed us the proper use of scholarship. He was vastly learned, and had a natural propensity and love for learning. In fact, I first met him in the early 1970s after he joined the Brooklyn temple as a graduate in linguistics from Colombia University, but history has shown that he took up the service of scholarship not to become a respected linguist, but only as service to his spiritual master Śrīla Prabhupāda. He was thus a devotee first and a scholar second, which is actually the message of Vedic knowledge. In that sense the result of his study gave him the greatest insight into its true meaning, which he not only imbibed personally as a humble Vaiṣṇava dedicated to service, but as teacher who effectively inspired others to become Vaiṣṇava scholars as well. His life thus teaches us not only the importance of scholarship, but it limits as well, that it shouldn’t overshadow the import of its message, to become a humble servant to guru and Kṛṣṇa.
* yasya deve parā bhaktir
yathā deve tathā gurau
tasyaite kathitā hy arthā

prakāśante mahātmana


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