Pilgrim’s Diary 7. Not a Competition

I keep telling this myself – I’m not in a competition with the pilgrim. Our Hare Krishna movement is no in a competition with the pilgrim, but old ways of looking at the world die hard. We want to know we are in the right movement, we want to know we are not losing the race back to Godhead, we want to know we are doing okay. Even if we are slower we want to know that we are not hopelessly so. This is a challenge we can deal with in many different ways, so let’s look at the possibilities.

The best option is NOT to see it as a competition but see it in the mood of appreciation of other people’s progress. Whether we can actually see it like that is a different story, let’s set it aside for now.

We can look at the pilgrim and say that he was just one special devotee but for the rest of us his method is inapplicable so we should compare ourselves with general state of Christianity. We can conclude that we look pretty good in comparison, our hearts will get warm, and we can get on with our lives.

There have also been many devotees who tried ISKCON but then left for Christian pastures. Tulsi Gabbard’s father is one example but there are many more “lesser” devotees, so to speak. Some of them genuinely think they are making progress, some use Christianity as a safe vantage point to bark at Hare Krishnas and declare to the whole world how rotten ISKCON is. I don’t know of anyone who went pilgrim’s way, though.

In case it’s not clear – pilgrim went in three months from getting his first rosary to chanting Jesus Prayer non-stop. We can’t get there in thirty years and soon some will be chanting sixty years already, ans still not there. And the pilgrim is just getting started, there is a lot more to come.

Another way to compare ourselves is to look not at the external practice but at the internal mood. A little disclaimer first – internally the pilgrim is also way ahead of us but I’m talking about entirely different category, different quality of the prayer. His is a Christian one – God must help me. If you think about it – what happens if you feel fine and don’t feel like you need help? The book is silent on this, it doesn’t tell us how the pilgrim felt about the meaning of his prayer. They don’t talk about its meaning at all. We can say that Hare Krishna mantra is meant for Krishna’s pleasure, not for our salvation, and therefore it’s objectively better.

There is a story in this connection. A couple of years ago Dandavats published an article about Mt Athos, which is the heart of Orthodox Christianity and a place like no other. They have twenty monasteries there, two thousand monks, not a single woman, and by their standards the pilgrim was no one special. They had seen thousands of practitioners like him and even better. Anyway, after that article one devotee contacted me with a story. He had a friend with a congenitally deformed finger and once this friend went through hypnotic regression therapy. He learned that in previous life he was a monk on Mt Athos and one day he pointed his finger in anger at an icon there, and that caused his birth defect in this life. When he became a devotee and started chanting Hare Krishna and his birth deformity resolved itself. At least that’s how I remember it.

The point of this story is that it “proves conclusively” that Hare Krishna movement is better than Christianity, that it’s a natural next step in one’s spiritual progress. Moreover, this progress goes from a celibate monk to a regular devotee, going on sankirtana, eating prasadam, getting married etc. This shows that there is a categorically different quality to life in ISKCON, that it can’t be measured in the usual ways of human progress – coming from animal life and up through varnas until one becomes a perfect brahmana and eventually becomes a perfect sannyasi, which in itself could take several lives even for brahmanas. Athos monks can be compared to sannyasis here.

Or one could object because of their non-vegetarian ways – they do eat fish and stuff, though some subsist only on nuts and berries. One could say that from there the soul goes into an ISKCON devotee, then from ISKCON devotee into an Indian brahmana, and then he could be initiated into actual vaishnavism. That’s the official line of Madhva Sampradaya and it appeals to many ISKCON devotees, too. Or rather ex-ISKCON devotees – because after this move they don’t consider themselves as plebs anymore, they are “almost Madhvas”.

Now let’s return to appreciation for pilgrim’s progress. It should come naturally to us. Bhagavatam, after all, is meant for “nirmatsaranam satam”, for those who are devoid of (nir) the attitude of competition with others (matsarya). It can be appreciated only by those who don’t need to prove that they are better, not to anyone else nor to themselves. I’m not there yet and I constantly catch myself on finding some ways to make my ego feel unthreatened. If I catch this moment I can walk it back but nirmatsaranam means there is nothing to catch in the first place, that the comparison with others doesn’t even arise. So, how would one look at pilgrim’s progress in that state? Surely one would be glad for him, but that’s not what bothers me at the moment. My question is – should we try his way, too? Will it work for us?

I can’t find any connection to Jesus or Jesus Prayer in my consciousness so it’s not about a change in religion but about a change in practice. The pilgrim retired from the world and dedicated himself solely to chanting. We are supposed to end our lives in this state, too, but when should we start? Now? Or when we are seventy? Or when we are ready? What does “ready” mean in this case? How do we know we are ready? In later chapters we will see how his kind of retirement is not entirely implausible and that we can accommodate his kind of chanting, too, which poses even more questions. Should we really try his method? What are our precedents?

When I first read this book I felt very positive about all these questions. “Yes”, “yes”, and “yes”, and “when can I start?” This time, however, I have come to look at it differently. The pilgrim started from chanting in his mind then, for better control, progressed to chanting orally, then to chanting on beads, and we will not talk about what happened next yet. The goal, however, had already been declared – to transfer the prayer from his lips to his heart. This is what I cannot wholeheartedly agree with today.

Not that I have something against chanting in the heart or that we don’t have examples of that in our tradition, but there is something special in the audible form of the Holy Name. To me, today, it looks like a superior form to the Holy Name in one’s heart. Sure, it’s the same name, but the level of its presence is different. “Sound” in Vedic science is not sound per se but the idea of a thing itself. The concept of the thing which can be distinguished from concepts of other things. You might look at something and recognize it and this recognition demonstrates the presence of a distinct idea and, therefore, the presence of sound. You just looked at something and sound is already there. That’s how the Holy Name exists inside one’s heart and it’s even subtler than sound, subtler than any images or conceptions we have in our consciousness. And then this Holy Name gradually manifests itself, appearing in the heart, in one’s intelligence, in one’s mind, and, ultimately, as sound as a sensory object. We can hear it with our ears and we can produce it with our tongues. This appearance is Holy Name’s gracious mercy and I can’t think of a reason to reject it and go seek it inside the heart again.

When the Holy Name appears it starts dancing on our tongues and, as Rupa Goswami told us, at this moment one wants to have a thousand tongues and millions of ears, so why should we give it up and seek something else? Moreover, when the Holy Name appears on our tongues it rises from the heart anyway so we are not missing anything.

Lord Caitanya brought it to us as a sound vibration. He made a great effort and the Holy Name obliged. And He continues giving us this darsan as “Caitanya” – the giver of the clear consciousness, the one who awakens us to transcendental reality. Why should we turn away from this gift?

In this way we are not in the competition with the pilgrim, we are not trying to escape and to renounce but to bring the Holy Name out into the world. Lord Caitanya thrives there – on the streets, in the sounds, in the dance, and the louder the better.

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