What is real? What is not real? What is an illusion? Is there such thing as a “good” illusion in the material world?
Two days ago I wrote about clarifying our current situation and the conclusion was easy to accept – we are not as advanced as it might seem. It took a little time for this realization to sink in, however, there are implications there that I wasn’t expecting.
Let me start with an unrelated topic, though – ekādaśī. Last time it was nirjala, completely dry fast, and I didn’t like it very much, it gave me a headache. It’s acceptable a couple of times per year but living through it twice a month is a bit much for me.
We don’t have to abstain from drinking water, of course, but that is the purpose behind fasting on ekādaśī, there are not two ways about it. We can abstain only form taking grains but that is a concession, total fast is still preferable.
When this next ekādaśī came along I didn’t know what to do. There are several options here – do the usual ekādaśī, eat only fruit, ie uncooked food, it’s still filling, drink fruit juice to replenish the energy, there are plenty of calories there to survive through the day, drink only water, and observe a totally dry fast. I settled on water.
Hunger isn’t a problem, thirst isn’t a problem, but the headache still is. What should I do about it? Live through it? Why? What benefit of pushing myself through pain is there? What good does it do to anyone, Kṛṣṇa included?
While voluntary austerities are welcome in our sādhana, inflicting pain isn’t. Next time I should take fruit if not full meals.
Far more important question, however – are these ekādaśīs even necessary? Yes, Lord Caitanya demanded devotees to follow them but things have changed since then.
Śrila Prabhupāda didn’t see much value in fasting. He, of course, insisted on no grains but any other ekādaśī rule was considered as subservient to preaching. If we have books to distribute then we should not let fasting disturb our saṅkīrtana in any way. It’s just not that important.
Abstaining from grains maintains our purity and that seems to be the only thing that matters about ekādaśīs, whatever benefits they supposed to bring cannot be compared to the benefits from engaging in saṅkīrtana. Headaches or detoxing are obviously not part of our plan.
Going back to my original topic – is any of it even real?
Are things like long life, health and wealth that should come from observing ekādaśīs real? We don’t see any evidence of that. Maybe these results will manifest in the next life but that doesn’t make them “real” in our present. And if they are “real” even if we don’t perceive them then what about saṅkīrtana. Is it as real as ekādaśīs? Or is it similarly a long term investment in our next life that should be taken solely on faith?
One can object to defining “real” as something that can be perceived by material senses but I would argue that it’s the only kind of perception that is available to us in this life and, therefore, it forms the sole basis of our “reality”. Everything else is faith.
We take it on faith that Kṛṣṇa is there and that we might eventually reunite with Him. We have no evidence that any of this “Kṛṣṇa consciousness” is real. I would gladly welcome non-empirical evidence as well but there isn’t any, there’s only faith.
But what about “realized” knowledge that is supposed to distinguish our, genuine spiritual process from inferior faith-based religions? Don’t we feel Kṛṣṇa’s presence in our lives? Aren’t we persevering in our practice precisely because we feel that Kṛṣṇa consciousness is real?
I have my doubts.
Take following the regulative principles, for example. Practically anyone who sincerely takes to our process, especially to chanting, will quickly lose interest in meat-eating, drinking, gambling or sex. This is a fact, everyone can observe it, it’s reproducible, it’s scientific. It proves that our method works.
Does it, though?
Initial surge of enthusiasm usually subsides and old habits refuse to die. Defeating sex is nearly impossible in the long term for the vast majority of practitioners. Isn’t it proof that Kṛṣṇa consciousness doesn’t work?
The initial loss of taste in material matters can be explained differently, too. One doesn’t have to become a spiritualist to live a clean life. When people get excited about something they tend to lose taste in everything else. There are plenty of vegans, for example, and there are plenty of people who stay clear of gambling, and there are plenty of people who forget about sex, too. Not for long, of course, but neither do we.
Initial bliss can also be explained away. We aren’t the only ones who ignite people’s hopes and imagination and make them feel extremely happy. We aren’t the ones who invented the word ecstasy either.
Changes in our lives, even our growing attraction to topics about Kṛṣṇa, are not unusual. In the material world everybody eventually comes to like his surroundings. If we talk about Kṛṣṇa 24/7 we WILL come to like stories about Him, there’s nothing spiritual about it. In fact, it’s precisely why we must attend daily classes and read books – to make us like Kṛṣṇa artificially, to make it into a habit. It’s not a sign of actual spiritual awakening.
Once again, nothing in our lives proves reality of Kṛṣṇa. Placebo effect, self indoctrination, and similar psychological explanations are as good as our own. All we have is faith.
The purpose behind this argument is not to discourage anyone but to present another proof that we are only at the very first stages of bhakti, total kaniṣṭhas. At this stage we shouldn’t have anything else but faith and whatever else we might imagine will not be real.
Is faith real, though? Obviously it is, but the problem with faith is that it’s not based in reality and so it might change when reality changes. I accept illusion as reality here, too – material world exists, we just have wrong ideas about it.
Our contact with devotees, availability of our books, temples, and classes – all these things are outside of our control. Somehow it has been arranged so that we can support our growing faith in Kṛṣṇa but our karma might change its mind at any moment. In fact, at the moment of our death none of these facilities will be available anymore. We will be forced to perceive a different kind of reality and it might not be conducive to our faith. Will we remain devotees then? Probably not.
Truth is, we are not devotees even now. We will become devotees only when we get to serve Kṛṣṇa, only when we will get to perceive Him and relate to Him, only when He becomes “real” for us. We can’t force this on ourselves, it happens only by His own sweet will.
Only then our knowledge of Him will become realized, only then we can talk about Kṛṣṇa consciousness as being a “scientific” process rather then as a set of beliefs. This means that we have to fight the urge to declare so now, both to ourselves and to other people.
It doesn’t mean that preaching should stop but we should remember what forms the basis of our preaching – our faith in achievements of others. We succeed in preaching because Śrila Prabhupāda and our gurus carry Kṛṣṇa’s power, not because we are so self-realized ourselves. Surely, we have experiences to share, too, and they can be beneficial to others, but we should remember that they are not spiritual. These are not our experiences anyway, they are the works of material energy, time, and karma, hopefully acting under Kṛṣṇa’s direct control. We don’t contribute anything there, only our illusions.
Finally – what’s the benefit of understanding and accepting all of the above? Will it make anyone into a better devotee? Not necessarily. Understanding stuff does not automagically lead to spiritual realizations. Perhaps the best lesson to learn here is that we are not in control and are totally dependent on Kṛṣṇa. We do not make progress – Kṛṣṇa drags us along. Therefore, if He tells us to chant then that’s what we should do. Thinking and understanding things are secondary, and wasting time on trying to figure out one’s position on the spiritual ladder is just that – wasting time.