Staying Still

When discussing Bhagavad Gita we often hear rhetorical questions like “Can you stop breathing for five minutes? Can you stop thinking for five minutes?” They make perfect sense in the context of the need to engage one’s senses etc etc. This post is not about that.

I would rather argue that “staying still for five minutes” is an oxymoron because “five minutes” in itself is a measurement of change, it’s not a measurement of stillness. This, of course, goes back to fundamental understanding of what time is – it’s a force of change. It’s a force that compels the three gunas to move forward and change the state of the world, of the universe, of each particular atom, and of each particular being. Even in everyday parlance we understand that time is never still. When we say “five minutes” we mean movement of a minute hand on the clock or the number of CPU cycles on electronic clocks, translated into minutes and seconds. Something somewhere has to change in order for us to notice that it’s been five minutes already. It cannot be a measurement of stillness, it will always be a measurement of movement.

Having said that, we understand the meaning of “sit still for five minutes”, so how does it fit? What does it mean exactly. Keeping one’s breath, for example, means that our hearts keeps pumping blood, our cells keep consuming oxygen, our eyes keep tracking the watch, our thoughts race about the brain, our intelligence is busy weighing between “enough” or “a few seconds more”  decisions, whether any of it even makes sense, whether “mind over matter” is a real thing and so on. In fact, it would appear that we get ourselves even busier than usual. Of course we would stop any physical activity to conserve oxygen, but it would take many years of yoga practice to stop our minds from racing around and judging our performance.

The reference to yoga should get us closer to the meaning of “still” because, when perfected, one does not only stop breathing but also stops thinking, and when no bodily activities are going on his heart also stops pumping blood. If the yogi is not looking at the watch then time literally stops – for him. Those observing him would still count minutes and hours, of course. In our scriptures we have many examples of such yogis staying in trance for thousands and thousands of years, with no one watching. There are many of them still in meditation with no one even aware of their existence.

“But time is still going on,” one might object. “Yes – for you. Not for the yogi himself.” In the examples from scriptures we also learn that these yogis often have some goal in mind and so they keep measuring their position in relation to that goal. In ashtanga yoga, for example, there are series of steps – eight, in fact, as the name itself tells us – and so yogi progresses from one step to another and he knows where he is. This means that he has his internal notion of change and, therefore, subjected to his internal flow of time. From the outside perspective he has long stopped breathing and no changes are any longer visible. Internally, however, the yogi might decide to take a tour of the universe before going into final samadhi. At this point he will be visiting the Sun and the Moon and the Mount Meru and observing all the beings living there and their conditions and how they control movements of humans on Earth. And we’d call all of it internal and subjective and keep looking at our clocks – because we think our clocks are the objective reality. Meanwhile, the yogi will see subtle changes that will force us to abandon the observations in a few months from now and how these subtle changes gradually propagate through our “objective reality” and eventually force us to abandon the experiment. And we won’t believe a word of what he says when he returns to our world. To give an example – the yogi might notice political change in the air that will eventually force the lab management to divert funds elsewhere, like to preserving the climate.

Still, there are also examples of yogis who keep track of external changes, especially the demoniac ones, I guess. They know how much power they have accrued at any given moment, they know how long they have to stand on one leg to get to the next stage. They know whether they will have to stop breathing or whether they should allow ants to build a colony out of their bodies. They keep track, but it might not be measured in minutes but in years and decades. If we look closely around us also can notice that some changes take longer than the others, like the seasons or the movement of the second hand on the clock. We usually don’t even look at it and so do not measure our lives in seconds. We rather say “fifteen minutes ago” and even in that case we round the minutes to fives and zeros. A yogi, I would guess, can also keep track only of season changes, not even the days, and so he can be said to “sit still for five minutes” even though he doesn’t know when five minutes start and end. It’s just not a part of his reality. In the same way we don’t count our time by heartbeats. We know they are there, we can count then when we want, but usually we have no idea.

In other words, to sit still for five minutes we have to shift our consciousness from events observable in five minutes frame to changes that take considerably longer. As people get older they sometimes reflect back on their lives and, if we tied it to recorded events, measure it in decades instead. “I got married and then divorced” easily can cover a decade or two. If pressed he might produce minute details of that marriage but nowhere close to five minute intervals, and this ability to zoom in goes away with age, too. “Now I’m just waiting to die” is also a change that can take many many years.

We can apply this principle without waiting to get old, we just have to organize our priorities in proper order. One can measure his life by the time it takes to finish Srimad Bhagavatam, for example – if it’s the only meaningful devotional service he renders. Or one can measure his life by Ratha Yatras if he spends several months preparing for one. We just have to find some engagement for ourselves and focus on it, with the rest our lives simply folding into serving this one big purpose. “I will build a temple” is one such commitment and it usually takes a lot of time to achieve and it keeps oneself busy all the time. Who will even notice “five minutes” when absorbed in such a way?

That could be a nice spiritual solution but it won’t qualify as being still by objective observers. Okay, but it’s not a big deal. We can shift our consciousness deep within ourselves instead and focus on the Lord within our hearts. There will be progress in these pastimes but externally we would be very still by all accounts. Achieving this stage is not easy, of course, and even impossible – considering that bhakti is independent and cannot be obtained by our own efforts, but when it’s granted then stillness becomes the new normal. This has happened to devotees even in our observable and recorded history. Just recently Babhru Prabhu published a book about Akincana Dasa Babaji, Srila Prabhupada’s godborther who was very close to ISKCON. In that book, judging by previews, there were times when Akincana Babaji simply checked out of the external world. There are other examples as well, even with Srila Prabhupada himself, though no one checked the watch few times it happened in public. There were others.

The fully satisfying and achievable answer, however, would be – engage yourself in Krishna’s service completely and then you won’t notice how the time flies, never mind what people with the clocks say about your activities. That would be a real samadhi, as we can learn from even the most cursory reading of Bhagavad Gita. This way we circled back to the beginning of this article but, hopefully, learned something new in the process.

Srimad Bhagavatam and Science, according to Rasaraja Prabhu

Rasaraja Prabhu is a long running director of Bhaktivedanta Institute in Mumbai and recently I’ve listened to a couple of his presentations on the topic of Bhagavatam, science, and philosophy. Since they are repetitive I think I got the gist of how it goes. It’s not pretty, I’m afraid, but I want to record it somewhere for posterity, so here it goes.

He starts by saying that he worked on this for forty years and the knowledge he developed is actually not his by Lord Caitanya’s. That’s a radically different “mangalacarana”, where devotees usually declare their personal incompetence and beg for mercy in order to complete their work. Anyway, since it’s Lord Caitanya’s knowledge we are lucky to receive it, right? Nope. Rasaraja Prabhu says that the world is nor ready for it and so even if he tries to explain it, we won’t understand, but when time comes we’ll understand everything without explanations. Why would we even need Rasaraja Prabhu then? Anyway, he obtained it, we don’t have it, and he won’t tell us what it is – because it’s Lord Caitanya’s. That’s the first time I see this kind of mercy from Mahaprabhu. He might be right, for all I know, but it definitely sounds as fishy as snake oil, pardon my mixed metaphors. I guess he means it like when the world had to wait for ISKCON to manifest itself, which makes sense. Did Srila Prabhupada go around telling people they are not ready and so he won’t tell them of Lord Caitanya’s message though?

Next he engages the audience and asks for simple definitions of Krishna Conscious philosophy. “We are souls, Krishna is God, He is the cause of all causes” – that type of thing. Then he smashes them all by declaring that they are not philosophical but theological statements. Things we believe – not philosophy. Then he spends time explaining the difference and citing examples, which brings us to actual definition of philosophy and science, which he took from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the gold standard of philosophical repositories on the internet. This is a good time to tell the audience that he is mentioned on that site as well, that he has a standing there, he is an entity, and so what he says about it is good, solid knowledge and we can trust him. Humility, anyone? Not in this Bhagavatam class.

He quotes definition of science that goes roughly like this: “Observations of patterns in empirical reality and explaining them through the language of mathematics”. From here follows predictive power and technology. Cool, but why do we have to comply with patterns observed in empirical reality? Why do we have to compete with that? What concern is it to us? Why do we have to follow science on this? Anticipating this question he goes on to describe glories of modern science as was taught to us by Srila Prabhupada. What? Didn’t Srila Prabhupada routinely used words like “rascals” when talking about scientists? Sure, but here comes more audience shaming – that language was actually addressed to us, not to scientists.

There’s an example given – a thief is seen walking out of the house. You ask him: “What you were doing there?” He answers “I left my shoes inside”, and you let it go. When policemen interviews you he blames you for being an idiot and believing this explanation, and that’s how we should see Prabhupada’s strong words about science, too – he was blaming us for believing them. It was us who were being stupid.

I don’t know about this. Maybe it happened here and there, but it’s certainly not a definitive presentation of Srila Prabhupada’s views on science. Then we hear more about scientists’ superior knowledge and qualities. They don’t believe in their own theories, for example. They know that they are only provisional and will be replaced by something else. Okay, sounds good in theory, but in practice they are VERY defensive about their turf and they would rather die then change their minds about something. No one likes realizing he has been wrong and wasted decades of his life on a wrong theory, scientists are no exception. I’m afraid Rasaraja Prabhu might not be an exception either.

Anyway, glorification of science culminates in a quote from Srila Prabhupada that they actually attain realization of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Pretty tall claim, totally inconsistent with everything else said in Bhagavatam about the value of bhakti, but it is made and is supported by a quote. Here’s the full paragraph, though – let’s see if you can come to the same conclusion (CC Adi 6.14-15):

“Since materialistic philosophers and scientists are too much engaged with their imperfect senses, naturally they conclude that the living force is a product of a material combination. But the actual fact is just the opposite. Matter is a product of spirit. According to the Bhagavad-gītā, the supreme spirit, the Personality of Godhead, is the source of all energies. When one advances in research work by studying a limited substance within the limits of space and time one is amazed by the various wonderful cosmic manifestations, and naturally one goes on hypnotically accepting the path of research work or the inductive method. Through the deductive way of understanding, however, one accepts the Supreme Absolute Person, the Personality of Godhead, as the cause of all causes, who is full with diverse energies and who is neither impersonal nor void. The impersonal manifestation of the Supreme Person is another display of His energy. Therefore the conclusion that matter is the original cause of creation is completely different from the real truth. The material manifestation is caused by the glance of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is inconceivably potent. Material nature is electrified by the supreme authority, and the conditioned soul, within the limits of time and space, is trapped by awe of the material manifestation. In other words, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is actually realized in the vision of a material philosopher and scientist through the manifestations of His material energy. For one who does not understand the power of the Supreme Personality of Godhead or His diverse energies because of not knowing the relationship between the source of the energies and the energies themselves, there is always a chance of error, which is known as vivarta. As long as materialistic scientists and philosophers do not come to the right conclusion, certainly they will hover above the material field, bereft of proper understanding of the Absolute Truth.”

Quoted sentence is: “the Supreme Personality of Godhead is actually realized in the vision of a material philosopher and scientist through the manifestations of His material energy”. I don’t think it means what it looks like outside the context, though.

Other questionable claim is that we cannot know philosophy of Bhagavatam unless we know philosophy of the outside world. This is supported by various “vidya avidya ca” quotes from shastra, but, once again, it doesn’t usually mean we have to go and get degrees in philosophy or mathematics in order to understand Srimad Bhagavatam. To be fair, Rasaraja Prabhu also warns us from understanding it that way – instead of going to universities we should learn science from him, where else? He’s the sole guardian for now.

There’s more shaming throughout the class, more suspicious quotes, all demonstrating that we don’t know anything, including what we think we know, but he is the one who has figured it out. One demonstration is “cause of all causes” definition. “What does ’cause’ mean?” The audience replies “Reason”, but that is simply replacing one word with another. Fair enough. Then he goes into logical explanations of “if A then B” and possible variations of it. Then says that there are forty different kinds of causes listed on Stanford’s site. “Why are you wet?” – “It’s raining” – “Why is your friend not wet?” – “Because he has a raincoat” – “Why do you not have a raincoat?” – “I forgot”. So the cause of being wet is forgetfulness. Very enlightening. The audience is shamed enough that no one dares to say “cause of all causes” means all these permutations are covered. There are also various causes listed in our literature, with Sanskrit terms and translations into words like “efficient” and “material”. We are not complete fools about it, we just need to brush up on definitions.

The presentation is subtitled “Green Glass” and it’s another major thread that goes all throughout. It refers to a blind person getting green glass to finally start seeing the world. His vision is somewhat restored, but the world is not actually green and he needs to update his power of sight to see it as it is. Similarly, we receive some rudimentary spiritual knowledge but it’s covered and filtered and cannot be accepted as real truth. More shaming of the audience follows. Whatever we say is dismissed as “green glass” vision, what can you answer to that? It’s like talking to a kid who repeats everything you say just for the fun of it. In a Bhagavatam class you aren’t allowed to say much anyway, just sit and listen to this titan of thought.

We get quotes from Nobel Prize laureates praising his work, we get mentions of his papers being studied at Ivy League universities, and so it goes and goes.

He sort of acknowledges that Bhagavatam itself is enough for attaining spiritual knowledge, but explains that material knowledge would still have to come first. I haven’t traced the quote yet, but Srila Prabhupada once said, allegedly, that our spiritual advancement begins with material knowledge. Okay, maybe – you need to know the language and how books work, but there are no requirements other than that. What is that mysterious thing that we are still missing?

Twice it was practically the first question from the audience. “You said that this, this, and that understanding of this quote is wrong, but could you tell us what is the right understanding?” I couldn’t believe the answer, but it was repeated twice: “For that you have to write me a check for the institute I’m establishing.” Where else do you have to pay to hear an answer in a Bhagavatam classes? As a sign of mercy he then gives a totally forgettable long winded preview of his “scientific” answer, and then launches into a promotional speech about this Institute of Semantic Meaning in Science, Technology, and Engineering or some such. Technology is mentioned because otherwise no Indian would enroll, I guess. Main problem of this Institute is that BBT does not want to sponsor it, they need “scientific preaching”, which, as we learn, is a phrase Srila Prabhupada never used, and therefore we go about it all wrong, and he got it right.

The presentation concludes with more declarations of Lord Caitanya’s will behind all this work, and how it is non-different from Mahaprabhu Himself. For now Rasaraja Prabhu is the sole guardian of this secret knowledge and all he waits for is Mahaprabhu’s blessing to spread it all over the world. Anyone who doesn’t want to wait has to pay. Period.

That is not to say that he doesn’t make any good points during his talk. He does. I, personally, liked the argument that “There’s a chair over there” and “There’s a pain in my knee” are statements from the same category according to Bhagavatam. In modern science, on the other hand, pain is subjective and chair is objective – they are categorically different. I like the argument that only Krishna exists and all others, meaning demigods in that particular case, are products of illusion with no existence of their own. The world as a hallucination is also a good point to consider. Nevertheless, I’ve never seen anyone so boastful and so indulgent in belittling others in Bhagavatam classes. He is clearly a dedicated devotee who will never leave his service to the Lord and for that he deserves utmost respect, but I would caution anyone attempting to learn either Bhagavatam or philosophy of it from such a speaker.

I wouldn’t challenge him on quantum mechanics, of course, but everything else he touched on in these presentations is highly debatable and, I think, is fairly easy to demonstrate as nonsensical. He just ambushes the audience and people do not have time to digest, check the sources, and reply. And they are being shamed for their stupidity and lack of humility all the time, too – who will dare to object under these conditions? It really feels like he is peddling snake oil there.

On our ideal position

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati:
All persons of this world are superior to us in every way as far as this world is concerned.
It’s quite a radical statement. We look at ourselves and we think “we are doing okay”, certainly not worse than many many others, so how to understand it?
The lecture continues:
“Such material matters are not commodities that are to be coveted by us. We are merely beggars carrying the triple staff of renunciation and devoted to the chanting of the words of Sri Chaitanya. We have no more, nor any higher desirable object than the pleasure of serving sri-hari-guru-vaisnavas.”

Ahh, it makes sense now – it’s the vision of an akincana devotee, one free from all material aspirations. Even if some material possessions come to him, he does not see it as his own achievement and does not compare it to others. He either sees the Lord’s need for some service with that thing, or blames himself for slipping into sense gratification. Other people can legitimately advance their material lives with Lord’s blessings and, therefore, he seems himself as inferior.

The Lord gives authority and power to all these other people and so they control the material world according to Lord’s plan and for their ultimate purification and benefit, but when he tries to do the same he sees it as deviation from Lord’s service. Therefore they are all better than him and he does not impugn on their legitimate domain.

There are many other important points there as well:

“We are not the operators of the instrument; we are only the instruments. We must always bear this in mind. The triple bhikshus, tridandi-isannyasis, are the living mridanga drums of Sri Chaitanya. We must constantly give forth our music at the lotus feet of Sri Guru. We should practice the function of the peripatetic preacher, parivrajakacarya, of carrying aloft the victorious banner of the commands of the divine Sri Gaurasundar by constant submission to Sri Guru and the vaishnvas, fixing our eye on the pole-star of the heard transcendental voice. We must always bear in mind that we have been initiated in the vow of peripatetic preacher for the sole purpose of promulgating the heart’s desire of Sri Guru and Gauranga. If we are constantly inspired with the duty of discoursing about the truth under the guidance of Sri Guru, then no hankering after traveling, nor any veiled form of desire other than the chanting of hari-nama will ever strike any terror in our hearts.”

Other people are “operators of the instrument” – they are given their domain of material nature, their kshetra to develop, but we are instruments ourselves. Or rather should be – this stage is very hard to attain, maybe for a few brief moments in one’s life we act as instruments rather than controllers. Most of the time we are [ostensibly] using other things for Krishna, which is not what is demonstrated here. We are not “living mridanga drums”, we fancy ourselves as players instead.

Interestingly, “no hankering after traveling” seems to be at odds with self-identification as parivrajakacaryas. We think that traveling is one obvious benefit of being a preacher, but no. Among all the things one could do in the world as a travelling preacher – and I don’t mean to cast any shadow on any of our ISKCON “travelling monks” – there’s only one duty for a parivrajakacarya – discoursing about the truth under the guidance of Sri Guru.

In the progression of sannyasis from kuticaka to bahudaka etc one is supposed to first depend on the mercy of his family, then on the mercy of his village, then on the mercy of people in general for his maintenance, and so it implies he travels far and wide to collect his madhukari, but no, true parivrajakacarya is only focused on Hari Katha and pays no attention to his physical location and sources of sustenance.

Also note the terror of a desire for anything else other than chanting of hari-nama. The terror. Not an upset, not a sigh of frustration, not a dismissal, but the terror of thinking of anything else other than chanting.

From Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur’s Lecture given in Madras, 18 March 1933, as seen in Krishna Kathamrita Bindu issue number 79.