I don’t think I said everything I wanted to say or everything that needs to be said about SHAM in ISKCON. SHAM stands for Self Help and Actualization Movement, a rather fitting abbreviation. Is it really a sham, though? In the outside world it most certainly is but affirmations about devotional service are a different matter.
One could have a look at this video by our Mr Know-It-All, aka Caitanya Caran Prabhu, for example. He makes some great points and he comes from the position of no obvious bias or a trace of envy or any kind of hostility. I cannot claim the same perspective, I’m just ranting, so I would recommend taking his words over mine any time.
Another important point that needs to be mentioned is that one of our leading “self-help” devotees is, personally, beyond any reproach and so far I haven’t seen anything in his presentations that would lack in either humility or devotion – two most prominent features conspicuous by their absence in any self-help material.
I think SHAM becomes problematic when taken out of context and studied on its own merits. The thing is, these merits probably don’t even exist, objectively. I ascribe them to SHAM according to my personal views and there’s no reason that other people would see them the same.
So, I’m fully aware of the possibility that when these techniques come from the mouth of a proper teacher they elicit nothing else but deeper love and devotion. I’m also fully aware of the possibility that the misuse could be very dangerous to one’s spiritual life.
Take this set of japa affirmations, for example:
- I happily and enthusiastically welcome the holy names every Japa session.
- I get to chant, I want to chant, and I love to chant.
- I easily chant my prescribed number of rounds with focus and attention.
- My beads are my connection with Krsna, and my ticket to back to Godhead.
- I treat the maha mantra as Radha and Krsna, fully present in sound.
- I fully honor my sacred relationship with the holy names during japa.
- I turn of my world and turn on Krsna’s world when i chant my rounds.
- I receive and feel Krsna’s mercy, mercy, and love in His name.
- I chant in full awareness that the holy name is my greatest treasure.
- I chant from my heart, feelingly praying to come closer to Krishna.
- I chant to be accepted by Krsna, and to repair my broken relationship with Him.
- I chant to please Radha and Krsna, not to gain anything material.
- I meditate on the meaning of the names as i chant.
- I organize my life to make my Japa the most important activity of the day.
- I am totally dependent on Guru and Krsna to chant quality Japa.
It’s fairly easy to take apart and criticize, it is also fairly easy to approve many of these affirmations, and it’s very hard to disagree with the desired outcomes.
Caitanya Caran, for example, talked about creating a positive attitude in our service. Who can argue against that? We need to be enthusiastic in our practice, it’s not a choice. Ordinarily, if you are not enthusiastic about something, like a new app or a movie, it’s not your fault and no one would expect you to take responsibility for your lack of enthusiasm… unless you made a commitment and so you must honor it no matter what. Then you better put away your personal feelings and get to work, and the work would be so much easier if you learned to like what you are doing.
That’s our situation, too. We need to find enthusiasm and we need to learn how to maintain it. All by itself it won’t bring devotion just as any other limb of sādhana will but it is still as essential as getting up in the morning. If you need affirmations to convince yourself that you like your service and you like chanting japa then so be it. In this case it’s the result that matters – we must chant enthusiastically and with full faith, that’s our starting point, we can’t go anywhere further if we don’t learn to do that.
Someone might say that it’s artificial but it’s a shallow objection. Go have a look at how hard Olympic athletes work or how many hours musicians put in practicing scales. No one is born to do grunt work like that but everyone needs to step up and do it, often against personal objections.
Affirmations like those above are just words, we should be prepared to implement many similar ideas into our real, physical lives. Convincing ourselves to do it is only a start.
On the other hand, two comments I’ve seen made about these affirmations make pertinent points, too. One refers to these affirmations as improvement in our taste for chanting, which is nonsense. One might as well put some sugar in his mouth, the Names will certainly taste sweeter then.
We can’t improve our taste, it is totally outside of our control and it is given by guru and Kṛṣṇa. Similarly, we can’t claim that we chant from our heart either, as per item #10. We can try our best and we still can never be sure. The false ego always gets in the way and it always corrupts our chanting, otherwise we’d become fully self-realized devotees a long long time ago. Perhaps better phrasing would be I *want* to chant from my heart. We need to be aware of our shortcomings, they bring humility, and anyone with any experience knows that the more we chant the more dirt we see in ourselves. That’s a minor point that can, perhaps, be interpreted differently.
Another objection was to the prominence of “I” in these affirmations. All but one start with “I” and the odd one out starts with “my”.
Each sentence structure is also very similar. “I do things and they turn out great”. I can’t think of any verse from the śāstra that follows the same pattern. Brahma-saṁhitā prayers, for example, always *end* with tam ahaṁ bhajāmi. In English, however, all the translations start with “I worship Govinda”. Lots of mantras start with namaḥ, offering obeisances. In any case, neither worship nor obeisances appear in the affirmations at all.
“Mercy” is there, true, but as in “I receive and feel Kṛṣṇa’s mercy”, which is another bold and premature statement to make. What devotee would ever claim he receives Kṛṣṇa’s mercy? A few days ago I wrote about Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī’s saying that he feels everyone is worshiping the Lord, everyone is making progress but him. We can easily see Kṛṣṇa’s mercy in our lives but we also see that it is there despite our deficiencies and we are unable to catch any of it for ourselves. Everything happens *by* Kṛṣṇa’s mercy, true, but no devotee should ever feel adequate to possess it or qualified to receive it, for that matter.
That, perhaps, is simply an inherent problem that arises from translating mundane psycho science techniques into the language of devotion. Affirmations exist to boost one’e ego and one’s illusion of power and control while devotional service exists to develop attitudes that are directly opposite. Sometimes it just doesn’t translate well.
That’s why I think that close guidance by a devotee who is completely free from any desire self-aggrandizement is absolutely necessary to practice these affirmations safely, otherwise our spiritual life might become damaged.
I also have this image in my mind of someone doing these affirmations with the goal of capturing Lord’s mercy. Each one of them starts with “I” and ends up with possessing mercy, blessings, and all other spiritual goodies, and each one of them becomes more and more affirmative. aggressive, and projects more and more power. It reminds me of Lord Brahmā creating lusty demons who, sexually aroused, went after him and he ended up running away from those freaks.
Once again, it was an example how affirmations message can be perverted without proper guidance. Don’t do it.