Vanity thought #683. Illusions everywhere

I learned about yesterday’s “rubber hand” effect from a TV program on BBC that everyone was talking about at the time. The other notable illusion in that program was McGurk’s. It was discovered relatively recently, less than thirty years ago, so thanks to the science for this progress.

The gist of the illusion is that when we see a person enunciating a certain sound in a video we think that’s what he is saying even when the audio has been changed. In this particular example the presented mouths a different sound while the audio stays the same. We see his lips move to make a different sound and we discard the audio information completely.

Scientists are fascinated by physical brain work here, where exactly the illusion originates and how various conditions contribute to it or lessen its effect.

For us the first lesson would be that in acquiring knowledge hearing is more important than seeing, but in everyday life that would depend on which of the sources – visual or auditory is correct. If we hear some nonsense that goes against our books, for example, we know which side to take.

Another lesson could be in not trusting our knowledge gathering senses at all. Sometimes we forget how erroneous they might be and sometimes we might not even notice. This illusion is another nice argument to present to atheists or to people who rely on empirical knowledge.

There’s a deeper meaning here, too, I think. It’s not the discrepancy between our eyes and ears that is most tragic here, it’s the discrepancy between our preconceived ideas and the reality. In this experiment the problem is not the conflicting information coming from different senses, it’s the conflict between what we have decided in our mind and our ears.

Of course the mind has made a decision based on data coming from our eyes but that is secondary. It could just as well be coming from our memory or from our imagination or from our strong desire to see a certain type of events, from our prejudice.

If there was simply conflicting info coming from different sense organs we would be alerted and forced to make a decision but in this case there’s no perception of the conflict at all. We’ve made our minds and then we ignore any contrary information altogether.

This, of course, happens more often than we care to admit and much more often than we are capable of noticing. That’s why people are not a very reasonable species when you get to know them better.

So, what is the solution? To strive for better judgments at all times? Sounds good, right? But that is a preconceived notion, too.

As devotees we are not in the IQ race, for us being correct doesn’t mean being right or being better. We should judge ourselves by our devotion, not by our infallible knowledge and intelligence. The only thing required from our intelligence is to convince ourselves to chant the Holy Name, that’s what sumedhasa means in Kali Yuga.

Anything beyond that is unnecessary and distracting. We can really be too clever for our own good. The desire to understand the workings of this world is in principle anti-devotional because that is Krishna’s domain, not ours. Our capacity and desire to think is no different from our desire and capacity to eat or enjoy sex life. We can’t think that enjoying our senses is intrinsically bad but enjoying our wit and intelligence is good.

Another aspect of thinking too much is that it’s a relative assessment. We might take pride in figuring something we couldn’t understand earlier or something that is beyond most other people – in both cases the base line lies somewhere else, be it our previous experience or the national average. I don’t think knowledge can be measured in absolute terms at all.

Every time we think we are clever we forget about millions and billions of other people who are far more intelligent than us, and then there are demigods, too.

That is another illusion – to see our brain capacity as an objective reality having value on its own. It doesn’t because a) It’s relative and b) It’s not important in devotional service. We should never forget that.

Advertisements

Vanity thought #682. Illustration

Here’s an illustration of a disconnect between our impressions of the world and the “reality”. It’s called “rubber hand” illusion and it was discovered sometime in the last century. A person is sat down at the table and his left hand is placed a bit away behind a screen while right under his nose is placed a rubber hand that looks more or less as real.

What happens next is that the magician starts stimulating both hands simultaneously with a brush, finger by finger, until the person establishes a firm connection between the sight of a brush touching a rubber hand and a sensation he feels in his real hand that he can’t see at the moment.

Then the magician suddenly hits the rubber hand with a hammer and the person shrieks in horror. Well, it’s not that impressive in the video but the point nevertheless stands. What is probably more impressive is the fact that the mind practically abandons the real hand and the body slows down the blood flow so that real hand temperature drops.

Using yesterday’s Sanskrit lesson we can see proof why describing the impressions or sensations is the correct way to talk about the world rather than assume its independent and objective reality. When a person startles in false hand experiment he reacts to something that exists only in his mind and to him the fake hand feels just as real as, well, the “real” hand that his body quietly forgotten about.

Makes us think of what actually is our body and what isn’t, and whether it’s even correct to talk about our body as such. Maybe we should talk about egoistic appropriation of material elements as ours instead and we call it our body only because we accustomed to seeing the same group perform the same function over a long time.

This also illustrates expansions of our ego. First it’s our body, then we feel pain for our family, then we feel for our favorite sports team, then for the country, then for the whole humanity. By modern standards it’s actually great to feel the pain of the whole world or even of the suffering Sudanese children but from Vedic point of view it’s only an expansion of our ego. Is it any good if it grows to such huge proportions? I guess only if we eventually learn that we are not our bodies but anything our consciousness makes us to be.

There’s another side to this mind trick – what if instead of projecting ownership over material objects we learned to feel for Krishna? This sounds exactly like what Krishna consciousness is – acting for the benefit of the Lord, tuning our needs to those of the Lord, and in exchange sharing in His pleasure, too.

If we are selfish this is probably the best way to go, much better than seeking gratification in material objects. For embodied souls this is probably inevitable – first and foremost we seek happiness for ourselves, but as devotees we should probably loose this self-interest – please Krishna for our own satisfaction. And what happens if we somehow get disconnected from Him? If we don’t get the benefit of sharing in His pleasure would we lose our motivation, too? As devotees our service should never stop regardless of our personal situation.

That is a lofty goal, however, perhaps we should start with spotting examples of “rubber hand” illusion in our everyday life – when we assume ownership over things that don’t belong to us, and when we feel for things we shouldn’t be concerned about at all.

It’s no enough to see our misplaced attachments, though, our goal is to reduce those attachments to minimum and replace them with attraction to Krishna. That won’t come from observing illusions but only from chanting and following instructions of our guru.

Vanity thought #681. And what of nouns?

So verbs are the most important part of Sanskrit, all language is centered about describing how the world changes from one state to another. What about nouns? What about naming those “states”? They surely have to have words to describe objects just like in any other language – you know you make little flashcards with pictures and words to help yourself remember.

Well, apparently in Sanskrit there are no nouns to speak of and there are no words attached to objects that you can draw on you little memory cards.

What they use instead is descriptions of certain features of those objects. So it goes like “something that …”

What is something that drinks with its feet? A tree, of course. Though usually trees are described as something that is cut and felled down – vriksha. I don’t know if it CAN be felled down or has ALREADY been felled down to be qualified as vriksha, that’s not the point now.

So they don’t have words that correlate to objects, with some exceptions. This is surprising because I assumed that in Sanskrit words are non-different from the things they signify, that’s why mantras can produce physical effects, that’s why Krishna’s Name has all His original potencies. This needs to be re-evaluated.

In the meantime, what is important is that things we see around us as real, as objects, have been reduced to manifestations of certain features, nothing more. This is very helpful in trying to see the world as an illusion that is capable of making impressions on us but ultimately is not real.

It is real, of course, in a sense that it consists of gross and subtle elements, but when we interact with it we operate only with impressions. That’s why we get fascinated by a form of a woman but not if she is dead and rotting in the grave. Water is a primary element but when we think of water we might mean something that quenches thirst or something that flows.

When we want to “interact” with water we need it to comply with our conditions. Imagine a question on a hiking trip: “Is there water around here? Yes, but it’s contaminated.” It’s not the kind of water that we want so it’s useless to us, but maybe not to someone who just wants to clean his boots.

This cutting of connections between our desires and our impressions and the material objects that provide them must be very helpful in getting rid of the illusion that there’s some other objective reality besides Krishna and His energies.

It’s fairly easy to apply in everyday life, and, again, women can come very handy because what they say is not always what they mean and we have to look at what they want rather than the literal meaning of their utterances.

Ultimately, however, we must learn to reject our implicit faith in any kind of power or authority outside the Lord. The power and authority of the government and its laws, for example. Hiranyakashipu thought his was solid but Prahlad had none of it and saw that it was only Lord Vishnu’s power, nobody else’s.

Similarly, we trust that science has an explanation or a cure for everything, or that the ground under our feet will not give up because the Earth is solid. It isn’t, all of those things we trust do not have any truth on their own and cannot be trusted.

There’s no reality per se, only our impressions of it, and they are provided either by maya devi or by Krishna Himself.

We must learn to see the world in Sanskrit way, there’s no choice and no other truth our there.

Vanity thought #680. Why bother

Yesterday I got all excited about learning some new stuff about Sanskrit. Why? Isn’t it the main problem with us being stuck here – we want to learn new stuff so we have to get born again and again?

Srila Prabhupada has already given us the way out and knowledge of Sanksrit is not necessary, could be even dangerous. So why bother?

In my defense I want to say that it’s not really about learning Sanskrit but rather about learning “sanskrit” outlook on life.

Languages are a dime a dozen and I’m not talking about natural ones, I’m talking about computer languages, every year there seems to be a new one being invented or greatly improved on. Every new language or a new, improved variation is supposed to be better, clearer, more convenient and so on. Why don’t I learn the driving principles behind that? After all the initial point of sudden interest in Sanskrit was a claim of it being perfect for computers.

“Sanskrit” outlook on life is not about precision or convenience, though.

English or French or Latin are not that much different from Sanskrit, they are all languages, they are meant to help people express themselves and communicate with each other, and in that sense English is so much better, judging by the results. Can’t we pray in English? Can’t we think or talk about Krishna in English? Can’t we express our devotion in English? What has Sanskrit’s precision got to do with it? Not much.

The real difference lies in setting a common word and system value. We need to share the meanings of all the words we use in order to be be understood. We need to know that “tree” describes trees and “sun” describes sun, and that “good” is good and “stink” is unpleasant.

In this sense English or any other language people use describes the world from the point of view of a deluded sense enjoyer. Our common system we use to translate from one language to another describes a completely erroneous world view with completely skewed up values, but yeah, it helps us communicate, or rather share our association, which we need to avoid if we are to pursue the spiritual path.

Sanksrit, on the other hand, describes the world as Krishna and all the Vedic sages see it. It describes the reality – the existence of conditioned living entities, the nature of illusion, and the instruments of illusion. It describes the kind of knowledge Krishna tells us we need in order to achieve liberation and engage in His service. That’s what He was talking about in the eighteenth chapter of Bhagavad Gita leading to the “brahma bhuta prasannatma” verse where he introduces devotional service to Him.

The whole point of self-realization is attaining this kind of world view. That’s what also we mean by “shastra-chakshusha”, seeing the world through shastra.

We don’t need to know Sanskrit so that we can discuss the same topics in the language of spiritual perverts, ie translate into our vernacular. We don’t need to learn that mriga means deer in English, we need to learn what mriga means when Krishna says it. We need to learn what mind means when Krishna says it, we need to learn what ego means when Krishna says it.

I seriously doubt that I would even attain that level of Sanskrit even if I tried, but we always can start somewhere and pick up whatever we can. We can understand focus on the actions rather than their agents and their properties. I don’t know if we can adequately express ourselves in English if we take a similar approach, but we can understand it, and that’s a good start, I hope.

Mriga, btw, turns out is not a deer, it’s something that wanders on land. Cow, go, means animal wandering in search of food, I guess, senses, go, means something wandering in search of their objects. “Go” means something that wanders.

I’ll talk about Sanskrit nouns tomorrow, they are no less fascinating that Sanskrit focus on verbs.

Vanity thought #679. And don’t forget the Sanskrit

Only a few days ago I was talking about dangers of learning Sanskrit, a little knowledge of which is very very dangerous, yet today I want to say a few words in praise of learning this language.

Just as I think I washed my hands off it I was given a link, in connection to a different topic, to some very interesting Sanskrit sites. The one particular paper I want to talk about today can be found here.

Funny how I want to discuss it as if I knew Sanskrit at all, I haven’t got even the littlest knowledge yet already want to shout my mouth off. Realizing this point I’d rather concentrate on speculations that I hope would lead us to better understanding of Krishna consciousness. With that goal in mind it doesn’t really matter if I’m correct or not, does it?

Anyway, the striking feature of Sanskrit presented in that paper is that it’s a language solely of action. In English to make a sentence we generally need a subject, a verb, and an object. There intransitive verbs, of course, that don’t require an object – “I cry”, for example, but most of the time we talk about both subjects and objects.

In Sanskrit, on the other hand, all sentences are structured around verbs. Instead of a supposedly independent subject that might or might not perform some action for us to make a sentence about, in Sanskrit the subject is only a feature of the verb, and same goes for an object, too.

An example in that paper talks about cooking, one girl cooks rice for her friend in a pot over a fire, or something like that. In English we clearly have the girl that does the cooking, we have the verb, we know who the rice is being cooked for, where and how. Think about this description for a moment – I put some questions there that are being answered – “who for”, “where”, and “how”. Other similar questions are “by whom” and “why”. This is how the sentence is being built in Sanskrit – there’s an action and there are words that explain its properties – answers to my questions.

The girl who does the cooking is not the subject anymore – she becomes the property of the action. Because each action has the same set of properties (who, where, why and so on) and there are strict rules how to grammatically form and express each of these properties, making sentences in Sanskrit becomes a very scientific and unambiguous process.

Sentences become nothing more that verbs with accompanying sets of properties. Things like word order do not matter anymore.

How can this view of Sanskrit, most certainly incomplete and erroneous, help us advance in Krishna consciousness? Well, because it tells us that the only thing that matters is activity – it’s the only thing worth talking about. Actions, as the paper says, are analyzed in terms of intention and result, and it’s all we need to know. At some point the author was saying something like there actually are no verbs per se, just modifications of the original verb “to do”, “to perform the act of”, as in “to do the cooking”, or something like “to do going to other places”.

This points us right to the core of our existence here – desire to act. We want to do this and we want to do that. One moment we want to eat and another moment we want to travel around the world – it’s all about different shades of our intentions.

Once an intention, a desire, forms in our minds, it gets itself all the necessary properties, ie the state where we start and the state where we want to end, and the means to get there and all other stuff that is actually irrelevant – we want to fulfill our desire to act, nothing else.

If we see the world and our lives in this way it should be easier to understand our working senses. We still see our bodies as made of flesh, internal organs, hearts, lungs, skin and so on but here we can understand, from Sanskrit, why Krishna and Vedic knowledge in general talks about mind surrounded by senses instead.

We do not have the vision to see five gross material elements plus some subtle material elements because we are attracted by superficial appearances and we put values in the wrong places. That can’t continue forever, with Krishna’s help or not but we must learn to see the world the Vedic way to become liberated. We must learn to see our lives as interactions of senses with their sense organs, we must learn to see the workings of our mind and intelligence. Then we can disassociate ourselves from matter.

I guess this needs lots of examples to illustrate what I want to say. One example could be poetry. In Sanskrit terms poetry has no value whatsoever, but reading poetry does because it changes our mental state to the one of sentimental warmth or whatever it was meant to convey.

This would be an example of pandering to our senses of perception – desire to achieve a certain state that we consider pleasing to ourselves. Thinking about this for a moment makes it clear that things like sex life, for example, are same for all species of life, or pleasure of sleep is same for all species of life. Of course states in which these pleasures are achieved are different, but not the desire and not the result itself, ie you don’t want a rasagulla, you want a sensation it creates on your tongue. If you were a pig a soft turd would achieve the same, pardon my French.

This is a crucial difference that we can observe everyday in our lives and it’s expressed by “be careful what you wish for” warning. We somehow equate our desired states with external objects but there’s no equivalence there. Women say they want us to judge their figure but what they really want is the warmth that comes from a compliment. A mature man would know not to express his honest opinions in situations like this.

This is also the crux of our illusion – we think that being in this world will make us happy and we equate our happiness with certain state of the world around us but there’s no equivalence between the condition of the world and our happiness, in fact there’s no happiness here at all, not the one we should be looking for anyway.

Hmm, that is rather deep and profound, we are not going to realize this in one day, I wish I had better, closer to our level examples, but that’s all I got so far.

Vanity thought #678. Mysterious Golden Age

The Golden Age lasting ten thousand years is one of the first things we learn about Lord Chaitanya and His sankirtana movement and I’ve speculated about it’s nature before but there’s some information that has collected itself over the time and which needs to be summarized.

First of all, Prabhupada – he mentioned this ten thousand year period multiple times but I can’t seem to find him calling it “Golden”. This is significant because the world golden implies so many things. I think it crept in due to the comparison with Satya Yuga, which is the original Golden Age. I get to the implications of this later.

More importantly, however, is that Srila Prabhupada never gave any sources for this information. In his books he introduced it with “it is said” – see here and here. Moreover, when asked specifically about the source of this prediction he said:

Tamāla Kṛṣṇa: Śrīla Prabhupāda, where is the mention of that ten thousand years?

Prabhupāda: That I have heard it. Maybe in the Bhāgavata.

Apparently it was a part of Gaudiya Math lore that he picked up just as we pick it up when joining ISKCON.

Later on Ekanath Prabhu has found, translated and commented on relevant verses from Brahma Vaivarta Purana. This translation gradually spread all over the internet and the issue of source was laid to rest. One of the earlier incarnations can be seen here.

There have been some questions about authenticity of this Purana because these verses were never quoted by any of the Goswamis, while, apparently, the verses that they have quoted do not appear in the present version.

Then, just over a month ago, Advaita posted Satyanarayan’s comment on Ekanath’s translation and it was rather illuminating. First the disclaimer, though – both of these devotees are not in ISKCON and so whatever they say should be treated as empirical evidence rather than spiritual truth.

If you clicked on the link with original presentation first thing you’d see is that it’s called “Prophecy of the Golden Age from Brahma Vaivarta Purana”, then comes the preface talking about Godlen Age again, and then the comments reinforce the idea further.

Here are the original translations without comments, however:

Ganges said: O protector, Supreme enjoyer, on your departure for the perfect abode, Goloka, thereafter what will be my situation in the age of kali?

The blessed Lord said: On the earth 5,000 years of kali will be sinful and sinners will deposit their sins in you by bathing.

Thereafter by the sight and touch of those who worship me by my mantra, all those sins will be burnt.

There will be chanting of the name of Hari and reading of the [Bhagavata] Purana. Reaching such a place, attentively hear.

Sinful reactions including the killing of a brahmana can be nullified by hearing the Purana and chanting of the names of Hari in the manner of devotees.

Just as dry grass is burnt by fire, by the embrace of My devotees all sins are burnt.

O Ganges, the whole planet will become a pilgrimage sight by the presence of My devotees, even though it had been sinful.

In the body of my devotees remains eternally [the purifier]. Mother earth becomes pure by the dust of the feet of my devotees.

It will be the same in the case of pilgrimage sights and the whole world. Those intelligent worshipers of my mantra who partake My remnants will purify everything.

They are more dear to Me than My life, who everyday meditate only on Me. The air and fire become pure simply even by their indirect touch.

For 10,000 years of kali such devotees of mine will fill the whole planet. After the departure of My devotees there will only be one varna [outcaste].

Devoid of My devotees, the earth will be shackled by kali. Saying this Krishna departed.

Noticed anything unusual yet? There’s no mention of Golden Age anywhere, it’s in the title, in the preface, twice in the comments, but not in the verses themselves.

Satyanarayan points to errors in translations that also show reading something that is not there.

The third verse, “Thereafter by the sight and touch of those who…” has no word thereafter in it. Maybe it’s implied there grammatically and the translation is correct but if Satyanarayan is right then it undermines our model in which Golden Age starts with Lord Chaitanya.

Krishna speaks of two periods here – 5,000 years during which the Ganges will purify the sins and 10,000 year during which it will be devotees. Without thereafter these two periods can just as well happen concurrently. So we might be right in the middle of the Golden Age and not even knowing it. Yamuna has practically disappeared, give it a couple of decades and Ganges might disappear, too.

The next series of verses describe general effects of having Krishna’s devotees around, and in one of them, says Satyanarayan, there’s no future tense, as in “Those intelligent worshipers of my mantra who partake My remnants will purify everything.”

And then there’s the crucial, next to last verse: For 10,000 years of kali such devotees of mine will fill the whole planet. Here’s Sanskrit for it: kaler dasha-sahasrani madbhaktah santi bhu-tale.

According to Satyanarayan, and I find it hard to disagree even without Sanskrit knowledge, there’s no “fill the whole planet” here. Just devotees will remain on Earth.

To sum it up – these verses do not show evidence for the Golden Age and they do not show the evidence for devotees taking over the world. In fact it could be that we are right in the middle of the supposed Golden Age and this is as good as it gets, nothing major ahead.

What is this obsession with “golden” anyway? Why does it have to be golden? What images does it raise in one’s head but opulence and prosperity? We can modify it by saying that this prosperity will accompany sankirtana but that doesn’t full anyone but ourselves – it’s “gold” that attracts us to “golden”, nothing else.

And what of Satya Yuga? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little Satya Yuga around us?

Well, I don’t know anyone who could stand it for longer than two minutes. Satya Yuga means meditation and practice of yoga. There’d be no grandiose temples, no grandiose festivals, not even Sunday feasts. We’d all be sitting down and chanting quietly to ourselves, occasionally doing kirtans.

Our bodies are not designed for that, we need jobs, we need action, we need excitement, we need to “live a life”. With our propensity to quarrel even among ourselves we fit in Kali Yuga much better.

Then, of course, there’s authority of Srila Prabhupada. Did his version came from other, more legitimate sources than our current Brahma Vaivarta Purana? We will never know. He didn’t promise gold or prosperity, just ten thousand years of sankirtana. With our short lifespans does it really matter when these ten thousand years start? Not really.

I’m afraid we abused this idea to feed our own imagination.

Vanity thought #677. Converting atheists, logic and miracles

I guess each one of us went through the stage when we were absolutely confident in our ability to prove existence of God and were itching to try our skills on atheists. I don’t know whether I got wiser or just lazier but that seems to be like a wasteful endeavor now. Here’s why.

Imagine you met an atheist who seems like a rational guy and so you want to convert him. Most likely you don’t want to sweep him away with bold and sentimental moves about how Krishna is the most beautiful being in existence or how the sound of the Holy Name captivates every listener, you want to be rational, too. You are supremely confident in superiority and infallibility of our philosophy and you think that it’s all you need.

Most likely you’ll end up with nothing, though. There are people who’d take up Krishna consciousness before you even bring out your big guns. “You had me on “Krishna is our eternal master”, they’d say, and this seems like a victory but it’s not a victory for your superior logic. There are also people who are so close to believing in Krishna after listening to all our arguments but never make the leap to faith, and there are people who’d keep arguing and arguing with you and you’ll never be able to pin them down. Why? Because logic never works.

No one can understand Krishna through logic, no one can believe in God The Person through logic. He is adhokshaja, he can’t be approached or comprehended through our common rationality. He makes total sense to us, we think, but that is not because of logic, it’s because we’ve been given Lord’s mercy and with that mercy our rationality is connected to Him now. For other people without this mercy there’s no connection, too.

So, if we approach reasonable atheists thinking we can beat them at their own game, on their own terms, we are mistaken and are likely to be disappointed at the end.

When we talk to atheists they see us as our bodies, not as souls, that’s their limitation. As bodies, however, we can’t reach Krishna or prove His existence. Our senses are not better than those of atheists, our minds are not better, our logic is not better, and so with those instruments we can’t get to a better conclusion than them.

Modern atheists are not particularly smart by Vedic standards but they have easy access to a very deep well of knowledge. If they don’t know something at the moment they can always go and find how other people dealt with the same problems, and they can always find someone smarter than us, too.

We know that their arguments are wrong but it’s not always obvious how and analyzing how their premises are faulty is not an easy thing to do, especially during a debate. In the end finding mistakes in their logic would take all our computational power and there’s no guarantee that they would agree with rational conclusions either because with a little more thought put into it they can always complicate the problem even further.

What I mean is that no one is able to follow logic and reasoning to the absolute degree and for all practical purposes this can make such a debate endless. Theoretically it could go on for years and decades and long after our deaths, too, and there’d be still new arguments and counter arguments to defeat. It’s just exhausting.

In the end we’d come back to square one – Krishna can’t be comprehended through logic.

Okay then, if we can’t preach to atheists from their platform, because it’s not suitable for accepting Krishna, can we introduce them to religious aspect of our lives?

Let’s say they ask us why we go to the temple, why we bow down before the Deities, why we pray etc. What do we answer? We use our bodies to, allegedly, connect with God. Does it prove that God exists? Do we really talk to God, does He really listen, does He really accept our offerings?

Here we come to the subject of miracles. Christians are very big on miracles, especially Catholics. Can we demonstrate a miracle for atheists, too? I’m afraid we can’t. As devotees we all have stories to tell and we are absolutely sure of Krishna’s intervention but skeptics can easily offer alternative explanations to our “miracles”, too.

Why do we call them miracles anyway? Easy answer – because they defy our expectations of how the world is supposed to work. It’s not about God per se, we judge what is miracle and what is not by the standards of our mind and intelligence. Electricity would be a miracle a thousand years ago but now we know that it isn’t and God has nothing to do with it and that’s what atheists can always say about something they can’t currently explain.

What about genuine Vedic rituals? During Vedic yajnas demigods used to appear on a sacrificial arena. I’m sure it was possible to invoke Vishnu, too. Mantras were really working then, better than any magic. Is it possible to replicate it now? That would prove atheists wrong and actually show them God Himself.

Theoretically – yes, practically, however, no one has required degree of purity to really connect our material bodies with God. We are not gopis, we are not Vedic rishis, we are not even brahmanas. Our bodies are untouchable and absolutely useless in God’s direct service. So nothing to show atheists there either.

More importantly, even if we could make a Deity walk for hundreds of miles like Sakshi Gopala did, atheists won’t be able to see it because they still haven’t got Lord’s mercy.

So once again, without Lord Chaitanya’s blessings atheism is the best philosophy in the world right now. Maybe not as strong as impersonalism but it’s easy to understand for everyone, no need to study Vedanta, even school kids can get it.

How to preach to them? Same as to everyone else – hope that by Krishna’s grace they get an opening in their heats and we can plant a seed of bhakti we received from our guru. There’s no other way.

Vanity thought #676. Ode to atheism

The other day I saw another atheist have a go at God on TV and suddenly I felt that his arguments were very compelling. Thinking about it some more I came to conclusion that I’m an atheist myself and atheism is the best theory in this world.

Let me clarify what I mean, though.

Atheists do not believe that God exists and they cite several arguments to support their position. We usually try to prove otherwise but from their point of view they are totally correct. Once you understand their position it’s not particularly difficult to agree with everything they say.

I also do not believe in God that gives people cancer or kills innocent babies, or sends tsunamis that wipe out hundreds of thousands of people, or created mosquitoes.

I do not believe that Jesus Christ was God. I, like many atheists, suspect that he was not a real historic personality and even if he was, he wasn’t Son of God, and his miracles are very suspicious, too.

I do not believe in God of the Old Testament either – the way he was sending plagues and wiping out entire generations of people to suffer in hell of eternity for even minor transgressions.

I do not believe in God that resides in the sky and, like all atheists, I do not believe that he would ever be discovered through scientific research and by expanding our knowledge of the universe.

I do not believe in God The Creator who made this universe and keeps managing it.

I do not believe that God is real, too.

The last one needs a clarification – God is not real in a sense that atheists put in “real”, ie accessible with our sense organs or their extensions.

The creator role is not Krishna’s, too, not even Vishnu’s. Lord Brahma created all we can find in the universe, he is the founder of our sampradaya but he is not God.

Krishna also doesn’t run the universe, especially not for our pleasure, He’s busy with His own life and can’t care less about “tragic” happenings in this illusion that do not affect our spiritual nature in the least anyway.

Atheists assert that the world runs perfectly following the unbreakable laws of nature and I totally agree. They say that to live here comfortably you don’t need to worship any kind of God, just work hard or work smart or whatever is their current recipe for success.

In the Vedic tradition we have at least two schools of thought that claim the same – karma mimamsa philosophy of Jaimini which teaches that demigods are compelled to give us results of our sacrifices regardless of our faith. Modern “karmis” figured another way to get results, without performing Vedic sacrifices, but the principle is the same – demigods are compelled to give us fruits of our labor regardless of whether we believe in them or not. Demigods can’t break the laws of nature either.

Another class of such materialists is asuras. I don’t know how they achieve their standard of living that is claimed to be superior to demigods but one thing is sure – they don’t do it by worshiping Vishnu.

Fundamentally – God does not exist in this world and this world does not require presence of God to continue operating.

Atheists analyzed this world through and through and they came to the same conclusion – there’s no God here. Well done! Not quite up to the standards of Vedic rishis but for Kali Yuga it’s as good as it gets.

Atheists, of course, refuse to accept the existence of transcendental reality but what can we say about that? It can’t be experienced here, that’s why it’s called transcendental. We can’t explain it, we can’t make people feel it (well, most of us anyway). Practically it’s as good as non-existent.

We know of it only from coming in contact with transcendental persons and we ourselves can’t comprehend it in the slightest. We can’t explain what compels us to chant Hare Krishna, we just feel the need and so to someone who hasn’t been blessed by a devotee it looks like blind faith.

For us Krishna’s existence slowly and steadily becomes a reality that drop by drop replaces the “reality” we experience with out material senses. If we withdraw back into our bodily shell, however, there’s no God again and Krishna is not real. Atheists have never left that shell and so from their point of view they are totally correct – God doesn’t exist.

Being an atheist is not a rebellion against God per se, it’s just a statement of fact based on available evidence.

If we slide into a bodily consciousness we won’t be able to know Krishna, too, no matter what we say to ourselves. Krishna does not exist for those who enjoy their senses or for those who desire to control the world around them.

Or let me put it another way – if we speak the language of the atheists we have to agree that God doesn’t exist indeed.

Oftentimes we wish to have Krishna and eat our cake, too, but that is self-delusion. Krishna won’t become a reality for us unless we completely give up all our material aspirations – sarva dharman parityajya. Only then Krishna will become “real”, until then He would remain an abstract that atheists can smash in no time as a product of our imagination.

Atheism and existence of God, however, is not the biggest problem, the biggest problem is our lack of rasa. Without rasa, without love for Krishna, without bhakti, His existence is “transcendental” to our lives. He might or He might not exist/reveal Himself, without pure devotion we won’t care either way.

So, to convince an atheist of existence of God is only the first step. However important it is, life’s too short to go trough such steps. Giving people taste for the Holy Name is what makes all the difference. That taste will work even if person’s external consciousness remains firmly atheistic.

That is why sometimes I just love the atheists – they can’t shut up about God, they need to keep talking about Him, discussing His features, retelling His pastimes and so on. They don’t realize Him on the spiritual level yet and so their outward atheism is a sign of honesty, not delusion like our occasional sahajiism.

Vanity thought #675. Ananta Shanti

A couple of weeks ago Srila Prabhupada’s only Russian disciple passed away. Actually, he wasn’t the only Russian disciple, he was the only disciple from the former Soviet Union, a place that now contributes probably half of Hare Krishna following worldwide. I’ve seen they claim to hold world’s largest kirtans with over a ten thousand devotees participating.

And it all started with just one man preaching all alone.

He was initiated shortly after Prabhupada’s famous visit in 1971 and ten years later Soviet KGB was so afraid of growing Hare Krishna movement that they started putting devotees in jails. Practically speaking, during that decade Western devotees visited the country on a visible preaching mission only once, at a book fair, which was a major boost in spreading awareness but once they were gone it was again all on Ananta Shanti’s shoulders alone.

Unlike Srila Prabhupada he wasn’t born in Bengal, he didn’t read any of the shastras, he didn’t see any devotees, he didn’t know anything about Vedic way of life, he didn’t have association of someone like Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and his prominent disciples, and he didn’t have access to multiple Gaudiya publications.

All he had was a few hours in Srila Prabhupada’s company and the enthusiasm of devotees he converted himself. There were no Russian books in those days either.

He was a perfect example that all we need is a seed of devotion and from that seed everything can grow automatically without any extraneous help.

Eventually he was put away as a mentally ill patient and administered heavy mind altering drugs for some six years.

Then his life changed again.

I don’t know what happened but he drifted away from ISCKON and came to visit only on major festivals. When many Russian devotees left for Gaudiya Math he was seen coming to GM temples, too, and GM sannyasi can be seen at Ananta Shanti’s funeral service at the ISCKON temple.

His life story can teach us so many lessons and also leave so much room for speculation.

Was he “broken” in a mental hospital? What does it mean to be “broken” for a devotee? Did his mind gave in? Did he renounce his faith? Would that be qualified as a falldown?

Was he supposed to withstand torture like Haridas Thakur? Aren’t we expecting a bit too much from our material bodies?

At some point in his life he was given sannyasa but then he got married, how was that met in a insular Russian community? How did it look to the larger ISKCON when sannyasis started falling down left and right? How do we look at such things now?

And what of his interest in Gaudiya Math? Throughout all our history we’ve been practically ex-communicating devotees who have left Srila Prabhupada’s shelter. Should this be changed in light of posthumous glory we award to Ananta Shanti?

Personally, I think we need to learn to care about such external things in a mature way. Even if they have affected his spiritual standing we can write if off as differences between liberated devotees, like rivalry between gopis, for example, or general antipathy towards Akrura among devotees in Vrindavana.

Even Krishna’s eternal associates occasionally get mixed up in activities that are not universally appreciated. Or think of Kamsa’s mother Padmavati who kept blaming and finding fault with Krishna and Vrajavasis even when she was living in Krishna’s own Dvaraka.

If we see some devotee misbehaving we should learn how to treat them properly. We are not on the spiritual platform yet, we can’t bring spiritual differences into our mundane lives, that would be offensive, ie we can’t say the same things about Akrura with our material tongues that gopis did in their fully spiritual bodies.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t be complacent and liberal in our association, too. If our only goal was liberation it would have been okay but if we want to develop real devotion in the line of Rupa Goswami then we should be very strict in who to follow and who to keep company with. We shouldn’t be hanging out with modern day Padmavati, for example.

Vrindavan is a big place and we should seek blessing of each and every resident there but not if it comes at the expense of our acceptance by gopis and their servants. We can’t be servants of everyone, we can’t tell our guru that he can wait as we have somebody else’s orders to follow.

Ananta Shanti, in the meantime, was a truly great soul and a great devotee and talking about details of his incarnation should be done very carefully, I have not idea how to do that safely myself, but we can’t accept every twist of his life as fully spiritual either. We certainly should not imitate his pastimes or use his example as an excuse for ourselves.

Vanity thought #674. Beware of Sanskrit

Every devotee dreamed of learning Sanskrit at some point of their lives. Some have gathered and impressive vocabulary, some remember an extraordinary number of verses, some learned the script, some haven’t done anything in particular, but knowing Sanskrit is automatically assumed to be a plus.

When a devotee giving a lecture on Srimad Bhagavatam goes deep into intricacies of the language and proves his point with different translations and references there’s no substitution for the feeling of awe and appreciation for his wisdom.

Personally, last time I thought it’d be better to learn Bengali because it’s a much easier language and we have a lot of Bengali literature that is still awaiting translations.

The recent posting on bvks.com, however, warns us about some real danger coming with these aspirations. It’s a story told by Rameshvara Prabhu and I suspect it comes from his interview with Satswarupa Dasa Goswami taken for Prabhupada Lilamrita about thirty years ago. Perhaps I need to investigate this further because some of what Rameshvara said in that interview is being used against ISKCON and particularly BBT by our erstwhile enemies. I’ve heard that nothing from that interview was used for Prabhupada Lilamrita itself.

Anyway, the key quote from this story is this:

“… a little Sanskrit knowledge is very very dangerous.” Men who know a
little Sanskrit consider themselves to be more intelligent than anyone else.
Prabhupada said, “This disease will ultimately culminate in these men
thinking that they are more intelligent than their spiritual master.”

What an astute observation!

Lets admit it – we want to learn Sanskrit because we want to understand shastra better and because we think that what we learn from Prabhupada’s books and from our own gurus is not enough for our desired level of shastra comprehension.

Following this line of thought we make a cardinal mistake – we think that Krishna and devotional service can be conquered by our mental efforts. We think that all we need is a little more intelligence, a little more knowledge, and gates of Vaikuntha will come crashing down, trembling before our superior mental power.

What a delusion.

We also think that shastra is only a collection of letters and words and so the clue to spiritual progress is deciphering their meanings. This is an interesting point because shastra is indeed a unique combination of letters, or rather sounds, and just as Krishna is non-different from His name letters and sounds in shastra are non-different from true spiritual knowledge.

Well, Krishna might be nondifferent from His name but understanding Him is not the matter of knowing syllables, consonants and vowels that make the Name audible to us. We say “Krishna” many times per day without any externally visible effects whatsoever, the true Name remains hidden from us. What makes us think that studying Sanskrit would open the hidden spiritual treasure of the shastra?

Anyway, once we got on this Sanskrit train it’s natural for us to judge everybody else by our own level of knowledge. Thus it might appear that Srila Prabhupada has made mistakes, or that previous acharyas were not up to scratch, too.

Notwithstanding the modern examples of such thinking (they do not yet deserved to be named) there are two particular Sanskritists mentioned by Rameshvara – Nitai and Jagannath. I don’t know who Jagannath is, quite possibly he is now known as Jagat.

Jagat’s own story leaves some room for such confusion – he was a Sanskrit editor, and at the time of Rameshvara interview he had already left ISKCON and, perhaps, his new name, Jagadananda, got corrupted.

Or maybe it was a different devotee altogether. Jagat’s life story, however, in many ways proves Prabhupada’s point. I don’t know if Jagat has ever thought himself as being better translator that Prabhupada, but he abandoned his guru anyway and ended up as a “babaji”, smoking pot and having sex with a Sahajiya woman. He is a bit more presentable now but he still insists that those experiences were defining points in his devotional life. Whatever.

The point is – it’s not very difficult to spot errors in Prabhupada’s translations, he himself had editors to check them, knowing full well that a material mind has a tendency to make mistakes. I think we’d be wiser not to make a big deal out of this, either declaring everything he has ever said as absolute truth or thinking that he was a product of his era and thus his teachings are conditioned and temporary in nature.

I’m not going to delve into this right now, however. My mind is not big enough to understand the intricacies and implications of this subject. I’m not particularly keen on learning Sanskrit either. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to master it anyway – Prabhupada said it takes about twenty years.

By Krishna’s grace my mind has been engaged in philosophical speculations about His nature without knowledge of Sanskrit, why would I want to make it any more complicated? I’d rather see the need for these “vanity thoughts” disappear altogether, waiting for the day when just chanting Hare Krishna would be enough.