Just before Radhashtami Bhakti Vikasa Swami gave a series of talks called “There are no gopis in ISKCON”. I didn’t mean these in my previous post, but in the second installment he recalled “gopi bhava club” incident from Hari Sauri’s Transcendental Diary. The end of Prabupada’s argument there was “preaching will stop” and it seems very conclusive, but I don’t think it would work on “gopi-bhava” devotees themselves.
For them preaching is an external activity, external reason for Lord Caitanya’s appearance, while they are interested in the internal reason, which we all accept as being higher. They would also argue that external behavior, ie preaching, is automatically manifested from the internal one. I’m sure you’ve heard it many many times practically everywhere – preaching should come from the heart. If you heart is not pure then it’s not preaching, people can sense it, and it has no value. Aindra argued like that, for example. It’s very common and it’s common sense, too. I don’t think I have an objection to it either.
So how is “preaching will stop” argument is going to stop “gopi-bhava” proponents? They would also say that by preaching we actually mean accumulating money, followers, and temples, not actual preaching. They might also argue that it was super important during ISKCON expansion in Srila Prabhupada’s time so preaching had relatively higher value back then. They would also mention “boil the milk” instruction and another instruction not to open any more temples but only restaurants given to Tamal Krishna Goswami. This makes sense, too – everybody who was ready to surrender themselves had already joined and the rest needed only kirtans and prasadam, but mostly prasadam – because eating is the only activity that never stops.
Does Srila Prabhupada’s “preaching will stop” argument sounds as conclusive now? I hope it still does, but for a different reason – it is not as external as gopi-bhava devotees think. When done properly it is absolutely internal with absolutely no connection to events of this world. It is a pure manifestation of those same internal emotions cherished by gopi-bhava devotees, and it is nothing else. Whatever they mention – experience of Radharani’s love, experience of separation, experience of Lord Caitanya experiencing these things – it’s all there, on the street. You want bhramara-gita – it’s there, nobody can be as mad as a book distributor. You want kapalika yogi talk from CC? It’s there on the streets, too. A book distributor sees all kinds of forms as weirdly connected to Krishna, even the most abominable – because nothing can touch him, no substance of this world is able of polluting him, and so every connection to the Lord, however small, shines forth like a million of Suns.
Of course this level of realization takes years to attain but it won’t come from discussing gopi-bhava, it comes from being out there on the streets and actually learning how Lord Caitanya’s mercy works. For real, not from the books.
In other words, when Srila Prabhupada warned us “preaching will stop” he didn’t mean the external activity of making new devotees but the actual flow of Lord Caitanya’s mercy. Fools think it can be found anywhere else but in sankirtana, and only ignorants think that this mercy doesn’t flow when talking to meat-eaters. They think that unless you talk about gopi-bhava it doesn’t flow, but it does! And it doesn’t appear externally – it’s not in the words, so if you record and transcribe the conversation you won’t see it. Actual gopi-bhava is a lot more subtle than that and it is perceived by the heart even as a person mumbles something about money in his wallet. Only a real “bhavuka” devotee can see how, despite his mumbling and lame excuses, this person is totally on the hook already and his arguments are like gopis’ arguments when they were standing neck deep in cold waters of Yamuna and telling Krishna they don’t want to come out and they don’t want Him to see them naked.
Out in the streets you can actually see and feel how this pastime plays out, and this is how we are expected to realize its meaning and its rasa. But if people think “it’s only external” and think they can extract this rasa by talking – they are only fooling themselves. You would actually have to go out, find a potential gopi in the not so mature stage of development of her prema, show her Krishna, and watch how she struggles being torn between obligations to this world and these mind blowing books that simply can’t be resisted even if they say completely outrageous things on the surface. “On the surface”… – at this point only gopis’ heads were above the surface and their minds were telling them one thing but their hearts, deep within prema filled waters of Yamuna, were saying another. The hearts wanted to come out and the minds were trying to stop it.
Just go out in the streets and actually experience this pastime in real life, and don’t pay attention to people who call this “external”. It isn’t. And Srila Prabhupada was absolutely right – if preaching stops our actual spiritual progress stops, too, and it can’t be revived by reading those CC and SB chapters or tons of other books going into minute details. Even those subtle shades of rasa can be found on the streets, if you are worried about missing out.
Or we can challenge external-internal dichotomy itself. If someone says the pinnacle of siddhanta is separation experienced by Radharani in Vrindavan, or as it was experienced by Lord Caitanya in Gambhira, we can answer that no, there is something higher than that – the same experience as manifested through otherwise most separated parts of the Absolute Truth – specs of His material energy. That would, logically, be the pinnacle of acintya bheda-abheda tattva – the farther you go away from Krishna the closer it feels. Or the more insignificant you become the greater the rasa.
So let the fools deride us for being only external devotees who talk to people about trivial things like they are not the bodies. What do they know? Certainly not the actual rasa.
And, of course, we could be telling people about reincarnation and know nothing about rasa, too – if we think it’s only about getting a donation or about book scores or about**doing** our service – all kinds of external reasons and explanations. We actually have to learn how to find these gopis in the streets, eternally connected to Krishna underneath their external appearances. We can’t theorize or only imagine it either, we actually have to see, and this vision is given by Lord’s mercy. There are ways to attain it but, ultimately, **He** has to give it.
Krishna Consciousness is a very scientific process in the sense that, just like in science, we show some basic working examples but promise something totally out of this world in the future. Coming any day now, right after they create life out of chemicals.
I’m saying this after listening to Radhasthami lectures where people tell us all about her pastimes, in great detail, and with great deal of confidence that this is exactly what’s going on there and we all will be able to join in not so distant future. They say things like “her face is so attractive that even Krsihna cannot resist”. Have you seen her face to state that? No. Have you seen Krishna’s face? Do you know what it means “Krishna cannot resist”? No. So what are you talking about? It’s all in your imagination, starting from the color of her skin to the color of her dress to the shape of her face to her eyes to her smile and so on, and the same goes for Krishna, too.
With all these descriptions we ascribe known material qualities, even if the best of what we have seen, to spiritual personalities, effectively making them the product of maya. I mean all the features we imagine ARE a product of maya. How about Bhaktivinoda Thakur sharing in confidence that direct perception is absolutely nothing like anything we have ever experienced in this world instead? He was speaking of his descriptions as of giving only indications of what these spiritual objects and qualities would look like if they were a part of this world, but they aren’t.
This is only half of the problem. The other half is that for these occasions devotees come prepared with new insights and revelations, and I have nothing against those per se, but the whole dynamic becomes “you haven’t seen Radha and Krishna because you didn’t know this, but now you do!” And then next year they present some other excuse why their previous insights didn’t actually show people Radha and Krishna, but never mind that, they come with more insights and more revelations, backed up by quotes and verses so it will surely work this time. Then next year it repeats again, over and over, going on for forty-fifty years now.
Again, I don’t have anything against what they are actually saying – insights, quotes, and revelations are nice, but this underlying dynamic, underlying faith that we are just one insight away from our goal, that I cannot accept as genuine.
What’s the alternative? One is to focus on what we already have – the Holy Name. In these talks, even if they often remind us of non-difference between the Name and Krishna Himself, the underlying logic is that by chanting the Name we will eventually get to see Krishna, using the Name as just a tool, not as a goal. If the Name is as non-different as they claim then why not focus on features and qualities of the Name? It’s right here, on everyone’s lips, we all can perceive it. But no, instead of what we actually know – the Name as it is reveals Itself to us, we focus on forms in the spiritual world we can’t see, and they are mostly imaginary, as I said. It’s basic fact based on basic logic – we can’t see Krishna’s features in Goloka Vrindvana without seeing the same features in the Name on our lips right now. To put it differently – what we see in the Name now is all we know about Krishna, the rest is just words.
Another alternative, actually related, is to see how truly spiritual personalities behave in this world. We have examples of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, whose appearance day is today. He was Kamala Manjari, his writings and songs are translated, his biographies are written, and there is his autobiography, too. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was Nayana Manjari and we know a lot about his life as well. So, why can’t we, instead of imagining what “nikunja-yuno-rati-keli-siddhyai” looks like somewhere there in the spiritual world, look at what they actually did down here? That is how “nikunja-yuno…” was manifested for our eyes.
We don’t know Srila Prabhupada’s exact identity but we do know he was not a person of this world, and we know how he behaved here. This was purely spiritual, too – if we got the eyes to see. Also, just like with the Name – we can’t see Krishna’s devotees in the spiritual world without seeing Srila Prabhupada’s “earthly” form as fully spiritual at the same time. Or, put it another way – we can see Krishna’s entourage to the degree we can see Srila Prabhupada (and our own gurus). Everything else is a product of our imagination.
What I’m driving at is this – stop dreaming about unattainable things that don’t even exist and stop promising them to people. It’s what science does and we should take that part out of our consciousness. We have most valuable things already given to us – the Name, Srila Prabhupada, our guru etc, but we always try to look past them, look for something else. Why? Because we don’t have realizations and without realizations we think there is nothing to see here. What do you think will be the result of this foolish endeavor? I think I can tell you – our fate will be just like that of a cloud Arjuna mentioned to Krishna – “perish like a riven cloud” (BG 6.38).
Krishna, of course, says that it’s not what happens to unsuccessful transcendentalists but our dreams will end up just like that – small clouds blown into oblivion by winds. What we will have to start with again in the next life is what we have been ignoring in this – actual realization of the Holy Name, Srila Prabhupada’s spiritual form, and our guru – with same things we don’t see as spiritual now.
Of course we see the Holy Name, Srila Prabhupada, and guru as spiritual, someone might object. But do we? If we did we wouldn’t be talking about Radha-Krishna lila somewhere in Goloka or umanifested in Vrindavana. We talk about these things precisely because we don’t see Name, Prabhupada, and guru as spiritual, but I have already said that. I can restate the same idea again, though – if we had actually heard the Name or seen our guru we would not be able to talk about anything else. We would lose all interest – if we had seen these objects for real, for what they really are.
So, please, take this “science” out of Krishna consciousness. Our future achievements will not come from our future experiments, quotes, and insights. Krishna’s form, qualities, and pastimes come from what we already have, from what we have been in possession of all along – the Name, Srila Prabhupada, guru, books etc. “Sevonmukhe” – Krishna appears in response to our service attitude (to what we already have), not in response to some future endeavors, which is trying to grasp Him with our material senses. That won’t work, ever, but it will provide a lot of false hopes to keep us going. So take this “science” out and surrender to the Holy Name.
It appears Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur (shortened form only for the sake of post title being concise) had a lot to say on nama-aparadha. I’m typing this down before I forget as I just listened to these stories in a class where no references were given and I can’t find confirmation in available sources. The speaker gave a lot of details and he has access to Bengali originals so there is no reason to doubt these accounts whatsoever, so here goes.
First thing, and this is where more clarity is probably needed, is that before Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati the concept of nama-aparadha was absent in Gaudiya Vaishnavism. This might not have been true of ALL Gaudiya vaishnavas but there were cases of notable opposition and this can’t be ignored. The fact that this opposition didn’t feel challenged until Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati started speaking up on this shows that there was this tacit understanding – there are no nama-aparadhas in chanting the holy name. This was their argument – the Name is all forgiving and all powerful so there cannot be a way to offend it as a matter of principle.
We could say – “Wait a minute! What about that famous verse from Padma Purana?” Every ISKCON temple has its translation on the wall somewhere – the list of ten offences. Temple devotees often recite this list before morning japa, too, so how it can be denied? The speaker didn’t clarify this but he said that Padma Purana is… not a fixed text, shall we say. Damodarastaka we sing every day during Karttik is also from Padma Purana but can’t be found in any contemporary editions. The ten offences verse is still there but it’s already in a different Canto from the time of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, so it’s possible that this verse was not widely known. Off the top of my head I can’t think of an exact place where this Padma Purana verse on nama-aparadhas is discussed in Goswami literature, though I believe everything can be found in Srila Jiva Goswami’s sandarbhas or in Hari-bhakti-vilasa. By itself it won’t mean much anyway because most of the Gaudiya vaishnavas were illiterate and caste goswamis who preached to them avoided nama-aparadhas for their own reasons.
I said “avoided nama-aparadhas” not in a sense they avoided committing offences, no, they avoided talking about offences because then it would mean they’d had to give them up and they didn’t want that. They didn’t want to reform themselves and they didn’t want to discourage their followers either. If people wanted to have a kirtan – let them, don’t interrupt them, gradually the Holy Name would purify them automatically. If you start stopping their kirtans they’ll lose the taste completely and so what would you achieve?
It’s all very reasonable and this is exactly what we often hear today – let them sing, it won’t hurt, they are singing Hare Krishna, what more do you want? Don’t be fanatical, show a little appreciation, don’t turn people away from chanting, encourage them, nurture them, give them facilities, give them praise. Gradually gradually they will come to the stage of pure chanting by the power of the Holy Name. Moreover, if you start enforcing your rules everybody will leave and you won’t have anyone to have a kirtan with.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati had none of that. His central point on nama-aparadha was that it never goes away automatically by itself. Never. People who believe it will happen are only fooling themselves. Even Krishnadas Kaviraja says so in Caitanya Caritamrita – offensive chanting will go on for many many lifetimes (CC Adi 8.16). It’s a waste of everybody’s time, and in Kali yuga time is valuable – it flies away much faster than before.
Two stories were given to demonstrate this in the life of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta. First story involved a devotee from Nityananda Vamsa who helped him establish Gaudiya Math in Calcutta. He was once present during a class and when he heard Srila Bhaktisiddhanta preaching extensively on avoiding offenses he loudly protested, saying that he never heard anything like that form his guru, who was a famous acharya who translated many Goswami books (into Bengali, I suppose). To this Srila Bhaktisiddhanta calmly, without naming any names, replied that anyone who doesn’t teach his disciples how to avoid offences in chanting is not a real guru and it was not a real initiation. The devotee left, unable to tolerate such disrespect, but it is actually true – it is an essential part of initiation procedure. One must not only give a mantra but also give instructions on how to chant it. There are no rules in chanting the Holy Name but offenses must be avoided, this is essential, otherwise mantra will not bring its expected results.
There was another anecdote given, this time from Srila Prabhupada. He once let his senior disciples to give initiation lecture and he was sitting there and listening. Then at one point he interrupted it and said that one absolutely must mention avoiding the ten offenses during initiation, and then Srila Prabhupada took over and completed the talk himself. Again, no reference were given and I wouldn’t even know how to search archives for a class like that. There are 67 hits in Folio on “initiation lecture” and there is no facility to search within the results so I’d have to read them one by one, which is impractical. I have no reason to doubt it happened.
The point is this – offenses absolutely must be avoided, which we all already know, but do not take very seriously, and the guru absolutely must teach his disciples how to do that. I don’t want to play part of initiation lecture police but recent FDG initiation class was very short on anything to do with chanting and with the Holy Name and I don’t think they mentioned offences at all. They all talked about this glorious achievement of having female gurus instead. I don’t want this to be a dig at FDGs either – just a neutral point that a guru should absolutely teach about avoiding offenses, otherwise he is not a real guru and initiation is not a real initiation either. For all I know, that female devotee could have taught about offenses on other occasions, which would be sufficient, so, once again, it’s not a dig at FDG, just a reminder what we should be on a lookout for when someone claims to be a guru. Doesn’t matter male or female – it applies to everybody equally.
Second story from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s life was connected to his preaching in Jajpur in Orissa. That one I could find and so here is an account of what happened as told in Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava:
After a public program in Jajpur District, whereat Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura had spoken about the ten offenses against the holy name, the maharaja of that area objected that since the Lord’s name is pure it can be chanted in any manner without question of aparādha; and the many sadhus present there abetted his claim. Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura told the doubting monarch, “I will show you how this is true.” He asked the sadhus to remain throughout the entire second session of that function, scheduled for the next evening. “We will be having saṅkīrtana and Hari-kathā, so you should not leave,” he said. Those sadhus came, but the majority left early, being habituated to smoking ganja and tobacco or taking tea at that time. Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura then pointed out, “Because of their addictions they cannot stay for saṅkīrtana. Is this not due to their offenses?” The maharaja understood. Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura then told him that Kali resides where there is meat-eating, gambling, illicit sex, intoxication, and the search for money, so these vices should be given up by serious reciters of the holy name.
SBV 3.12.Namaparadha (located in Volume 2)
This is self-explanatory. Btw, the first story could be the one described in the previous paragraph in the book but the names mentioned and circumstances are different, so it’s either a different story or it comes from a different source, or the speaker misremembered it, which is not very likely given his scholarly nature and proficiency in both Bengali and Sanskrit. Otherwise the content of that chapter in SBV confirms everything else I heard in that class and said in this article.
One must absolutely avoid nama-aparadhas as otherwise one would not be able to make any progress. A guru who tolerates nama-aparadha committed by his disciples only deludes his followers. I’ll conclude with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s own words on this subject:
Without taking shelter at the lotus feet of śrī-guru there is no harināma. Not knowing the difference between nāma and nāmāparādha, many persons accept mud instead of milk. Thus it is absolutely essential to know the right object of worship. Why we should perform bhajana, which bhajana we should do—understanding this is called initiation from śrī-gurudeva. Dīkṣā is the pastime of imparting sambandha-jñāna.
What does sahajiya mean today? I was just listening to a class and the speaker said that there are some traditional sahajiyas still present, meaning those who believe proper sex leads to attaining real rasa. Okay, but in another part of the same class they talked about attaining this same real rasa through immersing into emotions evoked by discussing rasa pastimes. The speaker posed questions like “How would it make YOU feel?” when describing gopis first meeting with Krishna, for example, and he elicited audience responses. It’s a typical tactic, btw, not just a one off occurrence in this type of classes.
It’s at this point that I fail to see principal difference between engaging in touching and kissing, which is a big part of the same lila, and imagining how it would feel in one’s mind. One is gross sex and the other is subtle, so what’s the difference? It’s not like people can see Krishna in their minds during these re-enactments, they imagine a person imbued with their ordinary perceptions of how men should behave and they just call him “Krishna”. How’s that not ascribing spiritual qualities to mundane objects and emotions, which is also a definition of sahajiya?
The argument could be that these devotees are not encouraged to imagine how kissing and touching feels but I don’t think this breaking up of the pastime is valid. How the gopis feel when the see Krishna is intrinsically connected to how they touch Him. The feeling, moreover, is contained within the touch and the touch is contained within the look they cast upon Him. Both are parts of the same rasa, just expressed differently. It’s like, pardon me for the gross example, avowing to abstain from sex but going step by step through foreplay, except in one’s mind.
Traditional sahajiyas get this unity of looks and touches and they come to actual sex by starting from the discussion of feelings first – just like the devotees are encouraged to do here, except they are expected to stop their imagination when it reaches a certain point, which is not yet defined. I can see how they could allow imagining how touching Krishna’s feet feels, and maybe even touching His hand, but probably not the kiss. The exact red line is to be determined, and then possibly moved as practitioners reach a new level of maturity. I also believe traditional sahajiyas took several hundred years to get to actual sex as embodiment of rasa-lila. I also don’t see how it could end up any differently either – as long as “rasa” expressed through material mind is nourishing the practitioner. At some point they would put this direct experience above any sastric injunctions, too. And we should remember that traditional sahajiyas do not see their rasa-lila sex as mundane either, they see, feel, and are absolutely convinced that it’s the epitome of spiritual reality. They do not see their bodies, they look beyond them, they see Krishna and the gopis instead. I’m sure it also makes them very happy and there is nothing in this world that can convince them otherwise. I said “in this world” because, as our acharyas explained, they have no access to actual spiritual rasa which is also the only object that can defeat their misconception.
This is where this sahajiya discussion makes a full circle, inexplicably – by indulging in material things and feelings people go all the way away from spiritual reality but in the end they try to look beyond matter and see the same spirit they have been running away from. Does it make it into an actual circle? It’s not supposed to, but there is an arch bending towards this meeting point from the spiritual world, too – Radha and Krishna come to this world to be human, not to be spiritual. For some reasons I’m not going to discuss here, They feel that expressing themselves through what looks like ordinary matter gives Them a better thrill than hanging out in Goloka only. The point is that rasa IS best expressed through material bodies for Them. The counterpoint is that we are not Them and even if we might be gopis in the spiritual world, none of us is Krishna. In this way the circle can never be complete, it just comes to someone getting closer and closer to imitating Krishna, but it will never be the same thing. This deserves a separate article, really, so let’s get back to the topic at hand.
There is an argument that by discussing Krishna’s amorous pastimes our own lust will be extinguished but I first would love to see an explanation, preferably backed by experience, of how it works. Otherwise lust can be extinguished by chanting Hare Krishna, too, and Srila Prabhupada was absolutely convinced of that. Somehow we manage to screw it – because we are not chanting it right, obviously. I think the same should apply to rasa-katha as well – first we need to learn how to do it right, not just dive headfirst without having a clue how it works and what we are actually doing.
Another, closely related subject, is that the same speakers often collate restrictive village life that tied gopis to their husbands with conservative devotees in ISCKON and compare gopis breaking away from those social norms with ISKCON progressives who want no restrictions on women leading kirtans, giving classes, accepting disciples, getting education, having careers etc etc.
To this my objection is that no matter what gopis felt inside and discussed among each other they never failed to follow these rules in public. Starting a campaign to change these rules was unthinkable, too. I mean is this what these devotees would do as soon as they get to Goloka? Start changing everything to fit with their ideas of what is correct behavior? Do they see imperfections in Vrindavan? Are they also going to tell Brahma to redesign people’s eyes just because gopis complained about it?
Connection to the earlier discussion on sahajiya is this – why do they assume that their upheaval against conservative views is purely spiritual in nature and not just some mundane emotion caused by following mundane news and mundane examples of mundane activism? Aren’t they assigning spiritual rasa to objects of this world again?
About a year ago I listened to an interview where a devotee argued that Srila Prabhupada was a demon, like literally a demon sent from demoniac planets. At the time I started a post here refuting his arguments but it remained a half finished draft and I’m not going back to it again. Instead, I want to approach the same issue but from a different angle. That devotee was obviously wrong and there is no need to prove where and how exactly he made his mistakes, but what if we look at a possible genuine perception of Srila Prabhupada as a demon. It’s not as outrageous as it sounds initially.
First clue is right in the pranama mantra – “pascatya desa tarine”. We translate it as “western countries” and we add that they are filled with impersonalism and voidism but “pascatya” by itself points to demoniac population. A couple of years ago I wrote on this subject in some detail here but let’s do a quick recap:
East is a place where the Sun rises and Sun dispels ignorance and illuminates the world, so East is a direction of obtaining new knowledge. In the cyclical development South is the place of application of this knowledge, or what we call karma-khanda or karmic activities. As time goes by people realize that karma does not satisfy them and frustration builds up. At this point that same knowledge is seen as the cause of their frustration and people turn against it. This is what “West” means – the direction of denying and rejecting knowledge. On the body of the universal purusa, who is facing East, it’s purusa’s back, the place where demons live.
Coming back to Srila Prabhupada – his message appealed to the people of the west and they saw him as one of their own, ie “demon”. As hippies they obviously didn’t see Prabhupada as a hippy, too, but he nevertheless embodied their most cherished values and ideals. When they looked at the society around them they felt dissatisfied if not outright disgusted, and their rebellion against traditional values resonated with Srila Prabhupada’s teachings.
At this point we should remember that people actually in charge of the society at the time thought that they were on the right path, if not the righteous path, and so to them hippy rebellion looked demoniac. Society leaders developed the country, developed the economy, created prosperity, kept their family values, raised children, and protected themselves from moral degradation in the form of drug use, rock music, sexual freedom etc. Those who were into these things got attracted to Srila Prabhupada instead. The first thing Srila Prabhupada did was to raise them up, dust them off, and make them look like the happiest people in the world, which is the opposite of demoniac agenda, but we have many devotees remembering that time as Prabhupada supporting women liberation and embracing gay sex. They still think he was the champion of their values, which were and are demoniac. Somehow Srila Prabhupada created this impression in them – he didn’t object to homosexuality and he encouraged women to be free and do whatever they wanted. We can argue that this impression was wrong, that it wasn’t even Srila Prabhupada who created it but it’s their own memories, we can give quotes, we can give examples, but this doesn’t change the fact that some/many of his disciples really think that women had the greatest freedom in those years – late 60s early 70s, and that gay lifestyles were fully accommodated. They don’t call it “demoniac” but that’s what actually is. So, if they start objecting now it would be double standard duplicity – you ascribe Srila Prabhupada demoniac qualities and praise him for displaying them, but don’t allow to use the word “demon”, which is totally appropriate here.
The devotee in that interview never met Srila Prabhupada, so what’s his reason? I’d say the appearance of ISKCON itself. They had a closed community in Russia, persecuted by the state, and then ISKCON came to the rescue. How? Kirtiraja Prabhu led the campaign to free Soviet Hare Krishnas and we are all grateful to him for that, but by today’s standards it was an entirely demoniac endeavor, and it’s not Kirtiraja’s fault either.
We praise Srila Prabhupada for making a wise choice to start his preaching from America and not from England, which was a crumbling empire quickly losing its relevance in the world, while the American star was rising. The other side of that rise is that it was driven almost entirely by demoniac agenda. When Americans conquered the world they were not known for bringing God and moral values to people’s lives. No, they were pushing the image of a smug looking men chewing in public and cowboys putting their feet up on the table. In most other cultures in the world this kind of behavior is outright disgusting and demoniac, but ordinary people could not resist it and indulged in emulating this American behavior, loved the experience of being “cool”, and so resistance became futile. Americans conquered the world, and ISKCON was seen as very American. Going back to that “Free Soviet Hare Krishnas” campaign – it was carried out according to the best democratic practices – people holding signs, picketing, making noise, public demands, appealing to the officials, writing songs, getting themselves in the news etc. The whole premise of it is that people at the bottom must force their leaders to change their ways. This kind of revolutionary behavior is also demoniac, demoniac at its very core – giving voice to people on the lower rungs of the society which they normally wouldn’t have. Empowering people who should wield no power. Revolutions. Battle for one’s rights. How’s that not demoniac?
In Russia, specifically, there is a growing consensus that the 90s, when Americans almost freely robbed ruled their country, was a decade of national disaster when demons temporarily took over and destroyed the place. ISKCON came on that same wave and employed the same methods, including, at one point, picketing and demonstrations within Russia itself, and Srila Prabhupada is ISKCON’s founder acharya. So, again, we ascribe demoniac qualities to his society but object when we hear the word “demon”. We need a little more introspection here, not blind outrage.
Let’s change the subject a little here. There are plenty of verses in Srimad Bhagavatam praising the demons. In other Puranas it’s one of the identifying features of the Bhagavatam – the purana which includes the story of Vritrasura. The story itself is described in many other scriptures but only in Bhagavatam we learn that Vritrasura was actually a great devotee, greater than even Indra. There is also a verse mentioning existence of asuras in the spiritual world:
In that personal abode of the Lord …. both the demigods and the demons worship the Lord as devotees.
Srila Prabhupada taught us a lot from Prahlada Maharaja, who was a demon. We learn from Bali Maharaja, who was a demon. We worship Lord Ananta-Sesa. who is also the Lord of serpents and snakes are universally perceived as demoniac creatures. Lord Balarama likes drinking and offered support to Duryodhana.
So, by itself, displaying demoniac qualities does not disqualify one from being a great devotee or even from being God. Rather it’s like this – the Lord is the source and the unlimited reservoir of all qualities we can imagine. We can’t comprehend them all at once and we make selections which resonate with ourselves. So demigods – suras – make one selection to praise and to embody through their own behavior, and asuras make a different selection which appears contrary to that of the suras, but it’s still a selection from the same source.
Going back to Srila Prabhupada – many devotees hold the opinion that his identity in Krishna lila is that of a cowherd boy and they point out things like installation of Gaura-Nitai deities everywhere and Krishna-Balaram deities in Vrindavan specifically – in the place of cowherd boys pastimes in Raman Reti, so let’s go with cowherd boy identity for now. What do cowherd boys do whole day? They play with Krishna as their equal, they give Him orders to go look for the cows and calves, they challenge Him, they fight, they beat Him in many of their games, they make Him carry them on His shoulders and probably punish Him in many other ways not mentioned in Bhagavatam. How do you think this is perceived by devotees of Vaikuntha if not outright demoniac? Zero respect for Bhagavan. Zero respect for God. Is it not a definition of demoniac?
If we consider this, then why should we be surprised if people who were raised in the mood of awe and veneration towards God perceived Srila Prabhupada as having a demoniac disposition? Did he not teach us to distribute books by hook and by crook? Did we not learn the art of flaunting the rules from him? Was it not our devotees who casually told him that as vaishnavas they didn’t need to take bath at Kumbha Mela? On that occasion Srila Prabhupada cut the idea at the root – we are not vaishnavas yet and so should follow the rules just like everybody else, but did they not learn this attitude to rules from him? They did.
How many devotees still chastise others for this cavalier attitude to morals and mores? This attitude has its source in Prabhupada and in Prabhupada’s personal realtionships with Krishna – rules of this world don’t really matter. And by the standards of this world this attitude is demoniac, there is no doubt about that.
To sum it all up – there could be a legitimate perception of Srila Prabhupada as displaying ostensibly demoniac qualities but the conclusion that he was a demon is wrong. It’s like being in maya – we look at real things but we see in a wrong way, we take them for not what they really are.
Ideally, respect should be given in full knowledge, in appreciation for someone’s devotional service and devotional qualities, but that is not always possible or practical so we offer respect to devotees “just in case”. It’s better be safe than sorry, the logic goes. Offering respect won’t break you neck so what’s there to lose? This kind of respect, however, is necessarily offered out of ignorance – we necessarily don’t know what exactly is being respected. Does it matter? Let’s see.
Let’s say someone’s face lit up when you offered them a book on the street. You don’t know anything about this person but immediately you respect them. Is it respect based on ignorance? Or maybe “mixed with ignorance” is better. The answer is no – we respect people’s interest in Srila Prabhupada’s books, not the rest of their lives. This is comparable to devotees’ accounts how Srila Prabhupada looked straight into their soul and they felt immeasurable love and compassion in that one glance. At this moment the rest of their lives just melted away and was forgiven. That was not a look of ignorance but a look of perfect knowledge – Srila Prabhupada saw the very essence, the most valuable part of our beings – our inherent and eternal connection with the Absolute Truth. Compared to this connection everything else in our lives has practically zero value and therefore looking past it is not ignorance but knowledge. Perfect knowledge – all these things are not worth anything. We might talk about ourselves and our problems and achievements 24/7 and become cautious if someone doesn’t take interest in them but this one look from Srila Prabhupada and suddenly you yourself see that they have no value compared to what Srila Prabhupada had just discovered in you, hidden and unappreciated. So ignorance has nothing to do with this.
More often book distributors comment on people themselves, saying things like “You look like an intelligent man” or “I see that you have a good heart” or “You look like someone who knows how to tell BS from a real thing” or something like that, latching onto whatever aspect of their personality people advertise themselves. There is an art to it and I don’t want to discuss how to do it properly, but this kind of respect is not given out of ignorance either. It’s an “educated guess”, and the correctness of this guess should be judged not by whether it is true or not but by whether the person gets hooked and takes a good look at our books or not. Sometimes a devotee would deliberately say something untrue just to shake people up and grab their attention: “You really think that about me? Well, why? But never mind, I guess I like that feature you just pinned on me, so what do smart/sensitive/discriminating people do? Look at your books? Fine, I’ll play along.”
Ignorance comes into play in situations where you are unsure what to do and decide to follow etiquette instead. Etiquette is given to us for a reason and it’s indeed better to offer respect “just in case”. So you see a devotee and automatically say something like “Dandavat pranams” or an extended version of it (because “dandavat pranams” is really the least respect you can offer). This won’t hurt anybody but what do you say after that? Would you say “All Glories to Srila Prabhupada” to a Narayana Maharaja’s follower, for example? Visually, they are indistinguishable and they won’t mind glorifying Srila Prabhupada, but their understanding of what this “all glories” mean in this case is different from ours. So now ignorance raises its head – you didn’t know and you shared a sentiment that is not actually shared, not shareable.
So now we have two kinds of respect in ignorance – one is controlled by etiquette and another is when ignorance is our own and we keep on going with it. That’s where things can get really messy.
Imagine a Prabhupada disciple coming to the temple for a Sunday feast. He is immediately shown respect, offered a prominent seat, and served first. Then he opens his mouth but instead of putting food into it he floods the assembly with unimaginable kind of nonsense. He might have a go at GBC for ruining ISKCON, or he might go talking about his own glorious achievements – there are plenty of topics that should not be discussed in public and there are plenty of devotees who just can’t contain themselves. In this situation you can be sure that 5-10% percent of those present WILL take this garbage seriously and plant seeds of doubts deep within their hearts. As Srila Prabhupada’s disciples get older and mellow out it’s not that big of a problem but I remember days when it really was and every guest had to be vetted first. Today, when someone new is invited to speak, they are usually informed what topics to stay clear of and in this way ignorance is dispelled and knowledge is established. Then respect can be offered in full, and in full knowledge, too.
There is another kind of respect as well – for people’s mundane achievements. Doctors get it automatically, for example, or rich people, or people of power – anybody who displays any of the opulences of the Bhagavan. Seniority is also automatically respected. By itself it’s not dangerous and it’s appropriate, but when it’s put next to one’s devotional qualifications things can get messy again. As Prahlada Maharaja prays to the Lord in Srimad Bhagatam (SB 5.18.12): all good qualities of the demigods automatically manifest in the devotees while “person devoid of devotional service and engaged in material activities has no good qualities.“Whatever good appears in them is a product of “manorathena”, product of mental speculations, as Prabhupada translates it. Ratha is a chariot and mana is the mind. What’s there to respect? This is how Sanskrit phrases it, too – kuto mahad-guna – where (kutah) are their gread qualities? It’s all mental.
The point is that mental creations deserve their appropriate level of respect but it can’t be placed next to respect offered for someone’s devotion. Not even close. Incomparable. Do not even try.
What happens if you do? This means you are placing value on things like one’s position in the society (janma), one’s wealth (aisvarya), one’s education (struta), or one’s attractiveness (sribhih) – this list is from the famous prayer by Queen Kunti (SB 1.8.26). What happens when you do that? In Srila Prabhupada’s words – you can no longer approach the Lord with sincere feeling. So what happens is that you just thought that these other things have a comparable value to devotion and immediately you disqualify yourself from being a devotee. You can still have your kanthimala but you can’t chant the pure name any longer. Gone. Sanskrit words, not explicitly put into the translation by Srila Prabhupada are “na arhati” – you don’t even deserve the ability to chant sincerely. It’s gone. “Incapable”, as Prabhpada says in the purport. He also stresses the power of the Holy Name to demolish a mountain of sins, but only if one pronounces it with a sincere feeling, which you can’t do any more.
What is left for you at this point? Nothing, really. You observe that the Holy Name does not work for you anymore and you might go on on the strength of your sadhana or previous impressions, previous samskaras, but the reality of your life is that the Holy Name doesn’t work and sooner or later you will start acting on this realization. You’ll start thinking that the glories of the Holy Name are exaggerated and so on. Because there is no big power in the Holy Name you won’t pay much attention to guru’s orders either – one thing always leads to another.
How to avoid this predicament? Simple, but not easy – always respect only the pure devotion and never ever allow to place your faith into anything else. You let those other things in and you are done, so don’t. It’s not easy because discrimination between pure devotion, show of service, sincere efforts, half-hearted efforts, misplaced efforts, misplaced devotion etc is not so easily attained. You have to know the real thing himself first and then compare all those other propositions to it – there is no other way. Etiquette can give us initial guidance but no one can apply or even understand prescribed rules perfectly so in the end it always comes to your own heart and your own judgment, which you should never betray – assuming you know your heart is true. If you betray your heart for the sake of etiquette or for the sake of your own reputation then you are done, too – Krishna will just stop talking if you do not listen.
Disclaimer: I obviously don’t mean that you can just go on with your own mind and discard anything else. You obviously have to find your heart first and you have to learn to listen to your own honest conscience. This is how Krishna talks to us and once you find this voice you can’t turn away from it without suffering serious consequences.
Practical question: Today is Srimati Radharani’s appearance day and there is naturally a lot of talking about Her, much of it sentimental. Do you allow this sentimentalism into your own heart or not? On any other day you wouldn’t, but is it allowed today? You know, it’s Her birthday and She is very merciful, so don’t be fanatical, right? Relax a little, right? Don’t be so uptight. Right? Or wrong?
First of all, read through the book of Nicephorus the monk (in part two), then the whole book of Gregory of Sinai, except the short chapters,
First of all, it doesn’t seem right – in the current editions it’s the short chapters that are clearly related to unceasing chanting. In the modern Russian text there are three books attributed to St Gregory of Sinai. First one has 137 chapters, second one 8, and last one 15. “Chapters” in these books are short and by word count the first book is only twice as long as the two others combined – they are 10,000 words, 3,000 words, and 2,000 words respectively. Pilgrim, however, was using 1793 edition in Church Slavonic language which I can’t read and I have to rely on tables like this just to translate numerals so that I could count chapters.
The first book in 1793 edition is the same, 137 chapters, but then there are 5 more chapters, then there is a 10 chapter book, then 15, and then 7. The last three books use “stillness” and “prayer” in their titles while the long one, in 137 chapters, talks about faith in general. Here is English translation of the penultimate chapter of that long book:
Complete dogmatic orthodoxy consists in a true doctrine about God and an unerring spiritual knowledge of created things. If you are orthodox in this way you should glorify God thus: Glory to Thee, Christ our God, glory to Thee, because for our sake Thou, the divine Logos who transcends all things, becamest man. Great is the mystery of Thine incarnation, Savior: glory to Thee.
I’m not going to read 135 chapters that brought St Gregory to this conclusion, I think it’s an error in Pilgrim’s references.
In English translation, done very recently by a group of collaborating academics, the long book has additional chapters which deal with something called “Morbid Defluxions” and I’m not going to read that either. English translation next has a 10 chapter book called “On the Signs of Grace and Delusion, Written for the Confessor Longinos” but it doesn’t seem to correspond to the 10 chapter book in Pilgrim’s Philokalia so I’ll skip that, too.
Then there is a 15 chapter book in English translation that corresponds to Pilgrim’s edition and to the last book in modern Russian, so I’ll read and comment on that. For reference, it begins on page 1121 of this pdf. Never mind the count starts with “2” there – it’s probably just a typo.
Then Pilgrim’s edition has 7 chapters on “stillness” and they correspond to 8 chapters in modern Russian (7 plus 1 Q&A), and there is an English translation of that, too, so I’ll read and comment on that short book. This leaves a 10 chapter book in Pilgrim’s edition I can’t seem to locate anywhere else. Oh well, what I have found is already more than enough and it’s kind of repetitive so I don’t think we’ll be missing anything truly essential.
The order in which these books appear in modern translation is different and this supports my decision not to summarize and categorize their meanings, not to search of one overarching idea and explain everything in relation to it like we usually do with books. I treat these chapters as a collection of random thoughts, not necessarily following one from another. Unlike modern “thoughts” these pack a lot meaning on their own and that’s why they are called “chapters”, I guess, though in size they are more like paragraphs.
A short note on St Gregory of Sinai himself first. Previous book was by St Nikiphoros, who was a guru of one Gregory Palamas, the father of Orthodox Christian mysticism. Gregory of Sinai was his contemporary and for some time they both lived on Mt Athos but there is no clear evidence that they knew each other – Mt Athos is a big place and monks there are supposed to live reclusive lives. Gregory of Palamas didn’t make it on the reading list, however, and I wonder why. Perhaps it’s a kind of a different sampradaya – because I’ve seen critics of the pilgrim citing saints who refer to Gregory of Palamas for support against his “heresies”. I don’t feel like investigating possible doctrinal differences here so let’s get on with St Gregory of Sinai, chapter by chapter, starting with the 15 chapter book as it appears first in Pilgrim’s edition.
1. First chapter is on two ways of prayer and it doesn’t seem like a choice – either one happens by itself, depending on how the Lord wants to awaken the devotee. In the first one the mind withdraws into the heart and calls the Lord from there, and in the second one the Lord’s Name rises up like a wave and drags the mind along with it. In either case the mind becomes fully absorbed in the mantra and does not desire anything else, no distractions. First method sounds like astanga yoga practice where the mind is withdrawn from the senses and one meditates on the Lord inside the heart. Second method is like mercy of Lord Caitanya which manifests full power of the Holy Name in the external sound, like in kirtan, attracts the mind, and then goes and enters into the heart, too. “Jaga jana mana lobha”, as Gaura arati goes – with Lord Caitanya’s mercy we don’t need to forcefully restrain our minds from sensual activity. God comes out of the heart and shines externally as the Holy Name. This is not the end of it, however – I was just reminded that the sweetness of the Holy Name, before it begins to dance on our tongues, first comes from the heart. So whatever happens externally must go through the heart first in order to manifest itself again, but this time in full glory of the Pure Name. Not to be dismissive, St Gregory tells us that the first method of withdrawing one’s mind also relies on God’s mercy – we can’t compel the Lord to appear in meditation. At the end of the day – either way is fine, whatever works, and whatever the Lord chooses for us Himself.
2. Second chapter gets right to it – to the actual praying in the heart:
Sitting from dawn on a seat about nine inches high, compel your intellect to descend from your head into your heart, and retain it there. Keeping your head forcibly bent downwards, and suffering acute pain in your chest, shoulders and neck, persevere in repeating noetically or in your soul ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy’.
This is it. Makes sense? Not at first. What does “compel your intellect to descend into the heart” mean? How can it be done? How do you even know when it’s done? How do you know your intellect is in the heart already? The moment you start checking you realize that it’s the head that does the testing. I don’t know what he meant exactly but I got my answer how – it’s not a spatial movement where you see your mind first in one place and then observe it moving into another. No – the observer (you) has to move, and the mind is just a location of your attention, “you” doesn’t actually go anywhere, “you” are always in your heart already, and it’s the focus of your attention that has to move.
So, what it means is that you should retract your mind into the core of your own being, away from all external thoughts and considerations, to the core of your heart where there is only you and the Supersoul, or you and the Holy Name in this case. Even if the Holy Name is an external sound at this point it’s still only you and Hare Krishna mantra, and nothing else. That is the location of your “heart”. To check whether you are there you, indeed, have to take an outside observer’s position and that’s when you know you have exited your heart and directed your attention to something else – your head, your considerations of success and failure, measurements of your progress, memories, desires, aspirations – whatever. When you are IN the heart these things don’t exist and they are seen as external. To get to their location your mind has to reach out to them, which is also what it should look like spatially if you were observing this movement from inside the heart – if you are looking from inside the heart then the mind first goes away from you and then comes back, it doesn’t go from one place to another as if you were observing it from a separate vantage point. No, first you are with the Holy Name then the mind, ie focus of your attention, leaves you to see something else, and then it comes back.
How to find that core of your being? Well, it’s when you leave all your worries behind, leave all your shields and faces and become honest with yourself and with the Holy Name. There is no need to pretend to be anyone else, no need to aspire for any better position, no need to justify anything – there is just you as you are and God. If you happen to bring some attachments this is where He will cleanse you. I believe lots of people would spontaneously start crying when they reach this state for the first time, the state of being totally honest with themselves. As devotees we should be a little more familiar with it but as devotees we also have models to follow – managala aratis to rise, Bhagavad Gita to read, rounds to chant, principles to follow, dhoties to wear, initiations to receive, missions to accomplish and so on. None of that should come between us and the Holy Name. We might feel guilty about something but that is the place where the Lord accepts us as we are and so there is no need to hide anything. The Lord knows us inside out already anyway, so just go and be with Him. Hear His name, pour out your soul. “Pour out” – see, once it’s done your heart will be free, empty of all the stuff and free to call to the Lord without any conditions attached. This is different from asking for something – money, wife, peace of mind, justice – whatever. We can’t come to the Lord if we are after these things because these are different destinations. We might be pronouncing the mantra but we should remember that the Name reciprocates with our inattention, too – if our heart is in a different place then the Lord will also be in a different place. This kind of chanting can go on forever without any tangible progress. It’s like Queen Kunti’s “janmaisvarya sruti sribhir” verse – if these things have value to you then you CAN’T call to the Lord sincerely. And the Lord won’t respond sincerely either. So it’s not about spatially locating your heart on the left side of your chest, it’s about purging everything else from the core of our being. Once we are there, once our consciousness is focused there, then this is where the heart is, and we should not let the mind go away from this state.
But then again – I don’t know how St Gregory meant it. He added a few other instructions – chant the first half of Jesus prayer first, keep your head down, bend your shoulders, neck, and chest inwards until you feel acute pain. Then you can switch to chanting the second half of Jesus prayer. I don’t know, maybe this is important, but I don’t see how – not for us. For St Gregory himself it might have been but our lives are different. For him it could have been our equivalent of sitting in a lotus posture with our backs straight like Sacinandana Swami teaches in his japa seminars. St Gregory lived in a “kutir”, alone. He didn’t have TV, internet, Facebook or any other distractions. His religion also taught him to consider himself as a sinful beggar for mercy and so crouching on a low stool, bending his head to almost touch his knees, and exerting considerable effort to maintain this posture could have been his perfect ontological position. There is also less stuff for senses to come in contact with, which means less potential distractions. Our equivalent could be chanting during brahma-muhurta and following routine so that even if there are things to look at our minds won’t pay attention to them and we can go on auto-pilot. Personally, I also prefer to close my eyes if possible, but when the Name comes and grabs your attention it’s not really necessary, you forget what your eyes are looking at anyway, like when talking on a phone we forget what our eyes are looking at – it is possible, we just have to wait for the Name to grab our attention instead of a phone call grabbing our minds as usual.
Second part of this chapter is about guarding the mind from allegedly devotional imagery that comes during chanting. Bad thoughts need to be rejected, that’s obvious, but St Gregory warns us from entertaining good thoughts, too. More on this later.
English edition also has a sentence about exhaling, how the mind can get carried away together with the expelled air, but I don’t think it’s relevant to japa, maybe to manasik japa but I don’t have enough experience with it to comment.
3. Third chapter is about breathing and it’s full of quotes in support, but I’m afraid they actually talk about prana. There is one quote that talks about nostrils but even then the gist of the chapter is that the Lord should become our prana-natha. Literally, it means He should control our breathing, too. Perhaps I should pay more attention to it but it’s hard to imagine how it could work during japa, unless it’s manasik. Prana moves a lot of other things as well. In our literature “Prana-natha” refers to control over desires and aspirations, too, for example. It means everything we do should be done for the Lord AND controlled by the Lord. St Gregory, apparently, included breathing into this “everything”, too.
4. Fourth chapter is about bhajans, kirtans, and attending temple services – St Gregory talks about psalms, which should be sung in predetermined tunes. He says that if you get tired of praying then this change is welcome, but otherwise it would be a distraction. If the Lord is present in your heart then you can’t turn around and go somewhere else, hoping to find Him elsewhere when He is standing right in front of you.
5. Fifth chapter is an answer to a question why some Fathers teach to do more kirtans while others teach to do more japa. St Gregory says that people preach according to their own experiences. Some simply don’t believe in Lord’s appearance inside the heart during unceasing prayer so they don’t recommend doing it excessively. What they don’t believe in, however, can easily come by Lord’s grace, and this is another reminder that this is not a mechanical process but Lord’s own plan for us, meaning we can’t force it and it simply might not be our time yet.
6. Sixth chapter is about difference between performing various limbs of sadhana bhakti and chanting. This goes back to that devotee who built himself a tree-house in Mayapur so that he could chant three lakhs a day. Neglecting things like devotee association, or fasting on ekadasi will not help in chanting, rather the point is that doing all these things – fasting, offering obeisances, staying awake through the night (used to be part of ekadasi vrata) etc should be accompanied by proper thinking and proper understanding. Sambandha should always come first, and then our dandavats will be offered not only with our bodies, or often only with our words, as in “Dandavats pranam, prabhuji”, but with our minds and hearts, too. Similarly, chanting should not be done only with lips – the heart should be invested in calling out for the Lord as well.
7. Seventh chapter is about moderation in mind control – when we get tired of forcing the mind to listen to the Name we should engage it in other activities until we gather strength again. This is the instruction of the wise, St Gregory says, like Srila Prabhupada who did not demand more than sixteen rounds and did not demand sixteen rounds to be chanted all at once. This is not an excuse to indulge in other things and it’s not an injunction to never chant more – it’s meant only to moderate our efforts so that we can give our best at least to these sixteen rounds. The goal is to chant 24/7 like Haridas Thakur, unless we are rather like Six Goswamis and can also write books and stuff. Their dedication is equal to that of Haridas Thakur, just the activities were somewhat different. The point is that this state is achieved by properly moderating our efforts until we get there.
8. Eighth chapter defends Haridas Thakur and says that for people like him there is no need to go to the temple, they are with the Lord already. Lord Caitanya even said that Haridas could take a break from chanting itself because that would not separate him from the Name in his heart. Then St Gregory argues that these instructions on unceasing prayer are meant for those who are simple at heart, even for uneducated, but those who know a lot, on the other hand, will always fall into delusion of grandeur, fall victim to those “prelests” I mentioned in the previous article. More on those later. For now St Gregory warns these people that unless they have purified their hearts of all pride and absorbed themselves in the spirit of “trinad api sunicena” instruction they will not succeed. Two things will happen – either they will persist with force until they break or they will chant haphazardly, which also doesn’t bring any results. Real chanting means inviting the Lord into our hearts and only then it becomes possible – “kirtaniya sadah harih”. We can’t force it and we can’t force the Lord to appear by chanting millions of rounds at Him. Our pride in our ability to chant so many rounds is what prevents us from succeeding.
The passage about dare consequences is damning:
…because of their negligence and arrogance, their intellect is still impure and has not first been cleansed by tears; and so, instead of concentrating on prayer, they are filled with images of shameful thoughts, while the unclean spirits in their heart, panic-struck by the invocation of the dread name of the Lord Jesus, howl for the destruction of the person who scourges them.
We don’t have the equivalent of “unclean spirits” in the heart but we do have the experience of the mind going completely nuts in response to our chanting, and I’m not speaking only for myself here. As I mentioned earlier, there are other beings that share our body in a sense of enjoying its activities and chanting might threaten them. We do have the concept of pisacas attaching themselves to our subtle bodies and if one is infected then he will experience what is described here by St Gregory. Hopefully, they will either leave or, ideally, get purified and help us in chanting, too.
9. Ninth chapter again stresses the need for moderation, this time based on the experience of St Gregory himself. If you get tired then you can go to the temple, let your mind relax by singing in kirtan or something. I don’t need to list all the ways we can engage ourselves. Another important point is that St Gregory recommends changing your psalms daily so that the mind finds fresh meaning and enjoyment in them. He also recommends kirtans where you listen to other people singing, too. The main idea is that when we let the mind relax from forceful meditation it should not get bored, otherwise it will discover its own entertainment. The responsibility is ours.
10. Tenth chapter is about “prelests”. English translation does not give chapter titles but their most common way to translate it is “delusions”. St Gregory implores us, his readers as “lovers of God”, to be very attentive and discerning and reject images of Krishna, Radha, Jesus Christ, angels or whatever that might arise in our minds, nor should we try to evoke these images ourselves. Do not let these images to impress themselves on our minds and become solid memories. These apparitions are designed to delude and distract us, and this is what is called “prelests” – that which seduces us from the spiritual path, that’s what the root of this word means in Russian – the ability to cloud our judgement and steal away our minds. As devotees we don’t suffer from this often but if you listen to congregation members they sometimes share “realizations” that sound just like that. Someone claims to have seen the Supersoul after two days of fasting, someone claims to have seen this or that, but Srila Prabhupada’s answer to these queries is immortal – keep chanting and it will go away.
Having said that, St Gregory does not deny actual spiritual experiences but he says they start and manifest themselves differently from “prelests”. It begins with the overflow of warmth in the heart, the warmth that melts away all desires and worries. It establishes nothing but love in the heart and it fills the whole being with supreme confidence, devoid of all doubts. That’s what “vastavam vastu” from Srimad Bhagavatam means – the foundation of all foundations which does not depend on absolutely anything else, and therefore it leaves no doubts. It’s the direct experience of brahma bhuta platform. Obviously, St Gregory is not talking about realization of the personal form of Krishna that comes as a culmination of chanting on that platform for a considerable period of time, which we probably won’t reach in this life anyway.
St Gregory gives one simple test – anything that produces doubts of any kind is not “vastavam vastu” and must be rejected. Note that it’s not that the doubts need to be resolved but that real experience does not create doubts in the first place. There is also an interesting description in the chapter that sounds like St Gregory was talking about lust, how it burns hot instead of making one’s heart warm, and how its sweetness, even thought clearly perceived, is tied to physicality instead of causeless joy in the heart produced by genuine spiritual experiences. He concludes by saying that with experience one should learn to differentiate between one and the other just as our tongues differentiate between different foods.
11. Eleventh chapter is about reading. St Gregory gives a list of authors who write about keeping silence and prayer and I’m not going to follow up on that, sorry. He warns not to read other literature, even if spiritual one, because their narratives would distract the mind from prayer. They are not to be rejected altogether but one should respectfully put them aside for the moment because they are not conducive to one’s practice. St Gregory says one should avoid reading aloud, because the sound of one’s voice can be distracting, too – one might start enjoying one’s own skill and diction, and one should avoid reading for the assembly because one might imagine himself as a leader who is appreciated by everybody. One should read at a steady pace, not too fast and not too slow, not too much and not too little – moderation should be practiced in everything, and the goal of reading is to make one’s mind ready and strong for praying. Breaking these rules will make one’s mind tired, lazy, clouded, and uncontrolled when it comes to the time to chant.
12. Twelfth chapter warns us to watch our inner intentions. Our mind if controlled by our intelligence, by our will, but our will is controlled by our intentions. We should always restrain ourselves from doing sadhana for reasons other than service, spiritual advancement, or benefit of others. Otherwise we will externally appear as vaishnavas – servants of Vishnu, but internally we will become servants of ordinary people. I guess St Gregory means that we will work for their approval, which will nourish our conceit and vanity. He specifically mentions it towards the end of the chapter – if we become driven by puja, labhda, and pratistha, especially pratistha, our sadhana will be fruitless – srama eva he kevalam.
13. Another realization from St Gregory’s personal experience – a yogi can’t progress without cultivating the following qualities: “fasting, self-control, keeping vigil, patient endurance, courage, stillness, prayer, silence, inward grief and humility”. A couple of these sound strange to our ear, like “keeping vigil”. On one hand there is a church ritual like that, they even have “all-night-vigils”. On the other hand it can’t be what St Gregory had in mind because he already told us not to bother with church services too much. Okay – not to us, but to people qualified for unceasing prayer. I think he means what we can call “meditation” – a concerted, undeviating concentration on something requiring a lot of effort and energy. It’s the effort, the time and energy that we put into it, that is necessary for a yogi in the context of this list. Difference between stillness and silence is elusive, but I would say, based on Russian translation, that the first means general attitude to life – don’t talk and don’t engage with the world, and the second means literal silence, which one can’t maintain 24/7 but should practice from time to time. For us it means japa, more of it instead of talking, and “stillness” is synonymous with renunciation and more of what we might call “phalgu-vairagya” – actual act of not doing anything and not engaging with anything. I think it should be obvious by now that St Gregory’s process is not for those excited by the opportunities provided by yukta-vairagya.
He then says that fasting reduces lust (“dries it up” in Russian translation) and brings about self-control, self-control brings about “vigil” or mediation, vigils develops tolerance and patience, tolerance builds up courage, courage – stillness, stillness – prayer, prayer – silence, silence – crying for the Lord, crying – humility, and humility in turn nourishes tears for the Lord, which lead to more praying, and in this way the chain goes back, strengthening one link after another. By tracing these steps backwards one can figure out how daughters give birth to mothers. English translation adds a bit about mutual generation. It’s a beautiful concept to keep in mind – everything in spiritual life works both ways. We serve the Lord and the Lord protects us. Lord’s protection increases our desire to please Him, and so on. If you think about it, St Gregory’s progression of virtues from the beginning of the list and back makes a lot of sense, too. I mean once you develop real humility than all the other virtues will naturally follow, just as they lead to humility in the first place.
14. Fourteenth chapter is long but actually pretty simple – in spiritual efforts one should always exert himself. If there is no exertion, if our sadhana is effortless, then it will be fruitless, too. In this way “easy” sadhana can go on forever without bringing anything in return, and St Gregory warns against taking this easy path. I guess it’s a counterweight to chapters telling us about the need to relax when necessary. St Gregory gives sastric support for this and these quotes makes up the bulk of the chapter. I can’t think of our vaishnava equivalent and his point seems self-evident to me. Our chanting will become effortless eventually – when the Lord really assumes the position of our prana-natha, but we are long ways from there so it’s not something to worry ourselves about right now.
15. Last chapter in this book tells us that we need instructions of the guru, though some have used their own experience as their guide. As we have seen, both St Gregory and St Nikiphoros occasionally tell us to use their instructions as our guru. We have rittvik controversy in ISKCON but discussing it would be rather distracting at this point. The point is that one always needs a guru but guru’s identity is not fixed – it only must be something external to ourselves. When St Gregory talks about one’s own experience he invites us to surrender to this experience instead of listening to what our minds are telling us right now. In this way “experience” becomes something external, too. It exists objectively and it controls and directs our minds, which is the same function as that of a normal guru. In our tradition there is also a concept of “caitya-guru” but for that we need to develop good sensitivity and discern between caitya-guru talking and the chatter or single pointed obsessions of our minds. This was mentioned in the chapter on “prelests”.
St Gregory concludes the chapter and the book by reiterating the point of chapter 14 – we have to work for the fruits of our spiritual labor, it’s not free, and these fruits will come by themselves and on their own schedule. It’s the same message our devotees get to keep them going – work now, samadhi later. Sadhana bhakti can’t be done in any other way until it brings the fruit of spontaneous attraction to the Lord.
Next is a seven chapter book, plus Q&A, in the modern Russian edition. Its English title is “On Prayer” but in Russian it’s called something like “St Gregory’s instructions to those who keep silence”. It uses a word that is popular in Church literature but is not in Russian-English dictionaries, with Google translating it as simply “silent”, which is not quite it – it’s a person who abstains from speaking. So, moving on.
1. First chapter is on how to sit in one’s kutir while praying – not comfortably but one should exert effort, both mentally and physically. The position should require some strain to achieve that, though he says one can change it occasionally when it becomes too difficult. This goes back to the need for moderation – we should exert effort without putting undue stress on ourselves. How to draw the line? My guess is that due effort is accepted by the Lord as a sign of our attention and we have to be sensitive to Lord’s appreciation. Undue stress, conversely, is not appreciated by the Lord and so feels like torture. Krishna also speaks about it in Bhagavad Gita when He talks about severe austerities and penances as symptoms of a demoniac nature (BG 17.5-6). Similarly, one should exert just the right amount of effort to control his mind. I would also add that we should prepare our minds for japa – we should be serene and peaceful, not obsessed with something or other and not planning revenge or making any other plans, really – japa is not the time for that. We should try to arrange our lives in such a way that we can free two hours from any problems so that we can give our mind to the Lord, at least for the japa time.
2. Second chapter is on how to chant. Some recommend breaking Jesus Prayer into two parts, or alternating full and shortened version so the prayer. St Gregory’s opinion is that it should not be done frequently. This doesn’t apply to Hare Krishna mantra but his underlying reasoning does – our chanting should display patience and not laziness, as when we think we are tired and change something simply to make it easier.
Much of the chapter deals with chanting aloud and in the mind. Some recommend this way and others that way. St Gregory’s own advice is to use both, whichever method helps. Sometimes the mind can’t concentrate on manasik japa anymore so audible japa is advisable. Sometimes the mouth gets tired, which never happens to us but probably becomes a real problem for those chanting three lakhs daily. Then manasik japa become advisable. By saying “both” St Gregory also means that both the mind and the tongue should be engaged at the same time. Audible japa should be clear, peaceful, and quiet. The goal is not to distract the mind from the name by the sound of the voice – there should be only the sound of the name, ie no singing. This is required until the mind gets completely used to listening to the Holy Name and, by the power of the Name itself, begins to pray unceasingly on its own. At this point audible japa will become unnecessary and even distracting – the sound of one’s voice will become distracting. At this stage manasik japa will become fully satisfying and one would have no desire to ever stop it for anything else, ie for audible japa. Maybe that’s what will happen and I can see how “chant 16 rounds or else” would be seen as too constraining on one’s devotion. Presence of the Holy Name at this stage will also include presence of Srila Prabhupada and of our gurus so the need to keep the vow will be reassessed according to our actual degree of progress. Perhaps more should be said about avoiding the dangers here but now it’s not the time.
3. Third chapter gives advice on how to control the mind. St Gregory says, straight away, that it is possible only by Lord’s power and not by our own efforts. He then explains that the mind has attained its current wandering nature because we let it do so for so long and it has become its habit. It goes back to the “original sin”, to our rebellion against the Lord and ever since then the mind had to seek pleasure somewhere else. The mind will have no choice but to behave this way until it’s reunited with God. For us it means to always bring the mind to the Lord’s lotus feet and apologize for leaving Him. The Lord can forgive any transgression if it is brought to him with a repentant heart in the spirit of humility. We have to work this way, St Gregory tells us, until the power of the mantra reveals itself and brings the mind under its control. English translation talks about the prayer becoming “activated”, which has a nice ring to it. I see it as starting the engine manually – you have to turn it again and again and again until it “clicks” and it starts rotating on its own. I still remember trucks that had a place to stick this manual crank in front or how people asked their neighbors to get the car rolling until the engine is “activated”. Lots of small engines for boats and even lawnmowers still have the cord you have to yank very forcefully to start them. I wonder if it’s the same principle with chanting. Could be. Last words in the chapter inform us that even then the mind might occasionally wonder off and this stops only when one attains perfection in his meditation.
4. Fourth chapter is about expelling “thoughts” – in English translation. Russian translation is a bit more specific. Dictionaries don’t help here but it’s more like expelling “intentions”, the ideas to do something. “How to stop yourself from getting ideas” would be a better translation but this informal register won’t match with seriousness of St Gregory’s tone, of course. Neophytes can’t do it, says St Gregory, and only the Lord can protect them here. More seasoned devotees can muster enough strength to fight but even they have to rely on the help of the Holy Name, using it as one’s own armor. This sounds very dogmatic – expelling bad intentions from one’s mind by the power of the prayer. It’s almost a caricature image of an erstwhile Christian shutting his mind to the world and only shouting Jesus’ name at everybody. “By the power of the Holy Name I compel you!” Nevertheless, I agree with St Gregory that this is what we should do. These days, however, people prefer to go along with their ideas instead – “what will repression accomplish?” Quite a lot, actually – when it’s done right, but neophytes can’t do it at all, as was said in the beginning. The model is like this – we should only chant the Holy Name, twenty four seven, and so this is our safest position whenever thoughts come – expel them and focus the mind on the Holy Name. Again. And again. And again. All other thoughts are useless and have to be abandoned. All of them, without discrimination. As you can see – it’s not for neophytes and even seasoned devotees should know their limits here – because “what will repression accomplish?” This is also why it’s impossible to fight this battle without Lord’s help – He has to provide us with safe alternatives to our minds’ ideas. All too often devotees get something in their head and it doesn’t even occur to them that they have to purge this idea completely, that it might be very harmful and should not be pursued. Instead everyone embraces it enthusiastically and tries to connect it with Krishna. And why not? That’s what we do when we are hungry – we cook prasadam. That’s what we do when we get married – so why not? It’s at this point that the reader should remember the huge gap between ourselves and yogis of St Gregory’s caliber – he is giving advice on unceasing prayer to those who have renounced their careers and family lives, who live in caves or bhajan kutis, who sustain themselves by a pound of bread and water, and who are able to chase away ideas of desiring pretty much anything in this world. The question naturally arises – is this really the only way? Yes, and no – it depends on how much support the Lord extends to help us to get to the stage of renunciation. Whatever is provided cannot be rejected, so “renunciation” is not the only way. Maybe it’s the ultimate stage of our journey, as I just heard in class – all activities should lead to religion, all religion should lead to renunciation, and all renunciation should lead to devotional service, otherwise it’s all pointless. Bypassing renunciation, therefore, is not an option. Sooner or later it should come and be welcomed, and before that point is reached St Gregory’s instructions might appear fanatical even if they aren’t. We will lose absolutely nothing if we purge away all thoughts except the sound of Hare Krishna. It’s how it should be, it’s the ideal state of our minds. Let’s get back to the book, however.
The advice is to chase away all ideas by force until the Holy Name comes to our help. He says that one should, like Moses, get up and lift his arms and eyes to heaven and appeal for help, and the Lord will remove unwelcome thoughts. Then one should patiently resume his prayer. I’m not sure how it would work for us – it seems he is talking about attacks of lust, otherwise there is no particular urgency. Anyway, this advice is for those who have not yet experienced the power of the mantra itself. Sometimes even those who have this experience still rely on this method, but only briefly, so that they don’t over do it and do not get a response from the category of “prelests”. The reason being that the mercy comes from the Holy Name itself, not from theatrics, and so getting carried away by his impersonation of Moses could become spiritually dangerous. Anything else we get attracted to, besides the Holy Name, is a gateway to falldown. St Gregory concludes the chapter by informing us that even for very advanced practitioners absolute serenity of mind is impossible and it’s attained only at the stage of perfection. I guess what he wants to tell us is that it won’t bother us as much but it won’t go away completely until the very end, so we should not freak out when the mind starts its ideations. It’s a property of the mind, not of the soul, and it’s natural for the mind to get distracted or attracted.
5. Fifth chapter is again about psalmodizing and it’s significantly longer than chapter 4 in the previously discussed book. We don’t have an exact equivalent to this “singing”. We do it at assigned times in front of the deities or during specially arranged kirtants. It’s not like one can start singing in the middle of the night – we don’t do that, but it’s a common Christian practice. Sometimes we can also start singing Hare Krishna, no one forbids this, but how it should be done properly will be seen from the discussion in this chapter.
Some recommend singing a lot, others never, and yet others singing only rarely. St Gregory is writing a letter here and so to his intended recipient he recommends singing in moderation, for all things are best in moderation. In English translation this maxim is ascribed to Ancient Greeks but in Russian they are identified as “unwise wisemen”. Probably because for all their wisdom Ancient Greeks weren’t Christians. Singing a lot is recommended for those engaged in active service and it would benefit them the most, but it’s not recommended for those practicing silent meditation who live their lives alone with God and who purge their minds from all “conceptual images”. He cites St John Klimakos that stillness is shedding of all thoughts, whether pertaining to empirical or intellectual planes. For these devotees singing would rather exhaust their intellect of strength necessary for controlling the mind during their prayers. That’s a very good point – kirtan is a recommended process for this age but we should keep in mind that after the kirtan we still have to keep on chanting, so it should recharge, not drain out batteries. One should definitely sing less at night but I think it’s meant for those who are actually praying through the night, not to those who are struggling to stay awake. Once again, this reminds us of a distance between us and these Christian yogis who slept only a couple of hours a day and bulk of their spiritual practice was done during the night. At Mt Athos they wake up around 11PM, afaik.
If, while praying, one observes how the mantra in one’s heart is active on its own one should never ever abandon the prayer and start singing. One can do that when the mantra leaves the heart (on its own accord, too) – but not while it’s still there. I would say this observation itself is fascinating – St Gregory talks about the mantra getting a life of its own and flowing in one’s heart out of its own will. In this way we become actual servants of the Holy Name – not in the sense we are using this phrase now – we do something, allegedly for Krishna, and Krishna allegedly accepts our service, which is very different from seeing the Name moving through our heart on its own. Come to think of it, it’s not very different from sankirtana. It might take a long time to find it, to find Lord Caitanya’s mercy and become its carrier, but when it happens one clearly feels how he is riding the wave and nobody in his right mind would want to get off and go home. That’s what St Gregory says about chanting and he says it as a matter of fact: “when the mantra chants itself you should not…” – yeah, but indeed – when? Well, at least we know what we should be ready for here.
His advice makes sense and he gives his reasons, too – if the Lord is speaking to you from the inside you can’t get up and try to address him from the outside. It would be descending from a higher level to a lower one and it would not only break your meditation but disturb your mind as well. True serenity is inside – remember? Stillness, by it’s very nature, engages one in activities of peace and silence. God lives in a world above our clamor and noise and so our singing should be similarly angelic, not mundane. I guess this is for all those new Hare Krishna tunes and styles – pop, rock, techno – whatever. All these overlay mundanity over the mantra and it’s unwelcome here. It might be useful elsewhere but not in silent prayer. Singing is supposed to awaken the pure voice of our souls and overcome, not encourage our, hmmm, “unawareness” and laziness. English translation gives “grossness” and in Russian they translated it as “making oneself dumber”. I actually remember when people’s common reaction to modern music was “it will make you stupid”. No one dares to talk like this today but they do advice to play Mozart to newborns instead, which conveys the same idea – classical music is sophisticated and intellectual while rock debilitates one’s intelligence. If we consider this from all angles we will come to the conclusion that our standard tunes, based on Vedic ragas, are absolutely perfect. In traditional kirtan the voice carries the tune and mridanga provides unbelievable sweetness and sophistication, but I digress.
Citing St John Klimakos again, singing is given to those who haven’t discovered praying yet. Of course everyone knows how to chant japa but here they are talking about prayer that infuses the soul with knowledge, joy, and power. So those who don’t experience it yet are told to sing, and sing a lot. They should also always engage themselves in service and never let themselves stay idle even for a moment. Then, as a result of their unwavering sadhana, they will eventually discover the inner world of self-manifested, self-activated prayer. “One would hope” – all I can say here. Silent meditation and communal life are different things, St Gregory says, but he assures us that one will get to his goal by following either of the two paths as long as it’s prescribed to him by the Lord. He warns that practicing silent meditation on one’s own, without guru’s order, and relying on books alone is futile, which is a point that I feel needed a little expansion there. For ourselves – we know that nirjana bhajana is not recommended for anyone in this age and that gurus are not always easily accessible for such guidance, so what to do? Sometimes, however, it becomes the only viable course of action and that would be the best signal from the Lord – you can’t do anything else anyway, so chant. Ordinarily, however, even with Covid lockdowns, we are not as isolated as necessary and so we have to follow our prescribed duties first and we can’t abandon them willy-nilly. The time will come however, when we will be left on our own and so we should be ready to chant and chant and chant.
Anyway, one who knows the mystery of self-manifested prayer should sing in moderation and spend more time chanting, resorting to singing only when the mantra disappears from the heart and when one feels exhausted. Or one could read Bhagavatam to get his mind back in shape. At this stage one is like a ship that doesn’t need rowing when wing blows its sails, but when the wind stops a bit of good old rowing becomes necessary again. At this point I want to remind us again that “blowing wind” here is the mantra starting to chant itself. We should have experience of this in kirtan but, generally, it’ s not present during japa.
Some give examples of Holy Fathers who spent all-nighters in singing, to which St Gregory replies that not everyone is the same and that not everyone stayed with the same method to the end. Some, after a lifetime of active service, immersed themselves in pure contemplation, enjoying the waves of well-deserved ecstasy, which poured sweetness into their souls so they couldn’t even sing anymore. To them it looked like fulfillment of all their desires but we should know it’s not the ultimate end yet. Others never gave up active service and left this world hoping to get their rewards in the next life. Some attained liberation at death and this was known by the fragrance of their bodies. At first this liberation at death sounds great – a perfectly acceptable outcome – but St Gregory pours some water on this excitement – liberation at death means they were initiated into it during their lives but, due to being caught in the illusion and general ignorance, didn’t get to experience the mysticism of union with the Lord during their lifetimes. Better late than never, as they say. Yet there are others who artfully mix both singing and praying, ie active service and personal bhajan, and in this way they live spiritually enriched lives, enjoying the spoils without obstructions or any obstacles. And yet there are also those who live their lives in silent prayer and attain total unity with the Lord. This book is for them.
6. Sixth chapter is about food. St Gregory starts with a question that sounds slightly annoyed: “What can I say about the belly, the mother of all passions?” Both translations use the word “queen” but in English “mother of” sounds far more appropriate. I think this has been St Gregory’s reply to someone’s query or maybe he was going through the list of topics and this wasn’t one of his favorite ones. After posing the question, however, he says quite a lot, so his apprehension could have been from “don’t get me started” category and he thought that this is a settled issue that can, nevertheless, distract him from his bhajan. He begins his answer with “if you can starve your belly to death or even to half-dead state – do it without hesitation, relentlessly”. He then says that his own belly took control of him and that he serves it like a slave. Then he follows the same argument as given in Nectar of Instructions – belly must be controlled and, on the other hand, uncontrolled belly is the source of all our spiritual troubles, and he also says that a controlled belly leads to liberation. Therefore honoring prasadam is at the very foundation of our sadhana, too. St Gregory didn’t know about prasadam and his solution to controlling the tongue is, therefore, slightly more pedestrian.
Different people have different needs, he says, what is enough for some might be too little for others and way too much for someone else. He lays down one common rule, however – those dedicated to praying in the heart should be always hungry and never eat to satiation. This “always hungry” has not been translated into English and I don’t know what original Greek is, but Russian translation carries the meaning of “always fasting” or “always starving themselves”. St Gregory gives an explanation – heavy stomach weighs on one’s thoughts as well. Full stomach also makes one sleepy and the mind can’t be controlled during dreaming, too (he’s got a very good point here!). Either way – it makes it impossible to be firm and pure in one’s chanting on a full stomach. All in all, his recommendation is to eat a pound of bread a day, accompanied by three-four cups of water or wine, plus other eatables if they come to the table and only for the taste, not for satiation. I guess “wine” rather means “grape juice” but that’s a whole other issue. Taking a little bite of everything serves two purposes – one is not to feel oneself too proud of his ability to fast, and the second is to show respect to the Lord who sends us our daily food. You cannot say no to prasadam, but honoring it is not the same as stuffing ourselves. His says this conclusion is the council of the wise. Then there is this weird quote about eating only vegetables being a sign of a weak faith, and I don’t want to go into that either.
He then continues what looks like correspondence: “You asked me about rules? What else can I say.” He says it’s not easy for an old man like himself to give rules to the young ones because they would fail to follow them anyway. He says that the path of the young is to know the rules, fail to follow them, repent, start over again only to fail shortly afterwards. One must persist despite failures, however, and that’s the only rule he insists on. He also stresses that one should blame only himself for his failure, not the rules and not anybody else. In this way one can eventually convert his failures into victories. In the English translation this passage is interpreted very differently – that St Gregory was writing to an old but sick man and that sick people should eat as much as they can. Then it gently transitions into the above mentioned rule [to be followed when health is restored]. Anyway, the point is to wisely learn how to convert lapses in sadhana into eventual victory.
St Gregory then draws the red line – live only on bread and water. I’ve tried to get exact measures but word usage has been fluctuating – it’s somewhere between a pound and half a kilo of bread. He says nothing works better for strengthening the body than bread and water. In our language it’s the best way to keep body and soul together, with all other eatables being nonessential, and he has a quote for that, too. Where I live it would probably be an equivalent of a cup of rice – when cooked it comes to about a pound in weight and it looks like quite a lot to finish in one sitting, should probably be enough for a day. The chapter concludes with a very important discussion about degrees of satiation: self-control, sufficiency, and satiety. Self-control is when one feels light after eating and doesn’t crave for more. Sufficiency brings slight heaviness to the stomach, and if one continues eating past that point it opens the door of gluttony which then lets in lust. Last words are the quote that one should learn to be full, hungry, and strong all at the same time. It’s a skill we all need to develop. Sigh.
7. Seventh chapter is a long discussion on “prelests” again, and it’s probably the longest chapter in these books. The tone is similar to the previous passage about food – it’s not directly related to unceasing prayer in the heart and if we start talking about it we might never stop, for a lot can be said on this. This time St Gregory does not talk so much about prelests themselves but puts them in a larger context and discusses how, where, and when they fit in our spiritual life.
He starts with free will and points out that by its nature it’s prone to misdirect us, especially for neophytes who are also practically hunted by these demons. We do not personify our delusions but St Gregory does, following general Christian trend to blame Satan for everything. We have this, however. These demons see that our “city of nine gates” is still largely in control of barbarians and so they set up traps and snares wherever possible. Our heart might be in the right place but the rest of our body and mind isn’t, and most of the time we still follow body and mind. Therefore it is to be expected for beginners to become deceived, lose their intelligence, become deluded (“give in to prelests” in Russian translation), accept falsity for truth, or say something inappropriate. Next sentence is very familiar – these neophytes, speaking about truth but still residing in ignorance, sometimes say things they don’t really mean and are unaware of simply because they don’t know how to speak correctly, and this might make listeners aghast, while senior devotees would chuckle and ridicule these pronouncements among themselves. English translation uses “hesychast” for senior devotee here but in Russian it is “silent one”, meaning people who don’t say anything but the words of the Jesus Prayer, and even then only to themselves. These mistakes are common and they happen to almost everybody, says St Gregory. It happens to those who search after God now and it has also happened in the past.
Smaranam, or mindfulness of God, or noetic prayer, or maybe mindful prayer, is the best sadhana and the chief of all good qualities. We usually put sravanam first, but we also have “always remember Krishna and never forget” rule which controls all other rules that follow. Having said that, people should not try to engage in smaranam before they are ready and attain the necessary level of purity. If this condition is not followed than we will become brazen, shameless, and over-zealous in our efforts at intimate communion with God, and for this we can be easily punished by the demons. In Brahma Samhita there is a description of how Goloka is protected and usually people guarding places are known as yaksas and raksasas. Yaksas slow you down and raksasas disassemble you by hooking at pieces of your being and separating them from you by force. This is where these Christian demons become recognized – they are meant to divert your brazen attack on God elsewhere or remove all that is unwanted from your personality. Quick anartha removing service, so to speak.
St Gregory says that demons need permission to do that but it’s unclear whose – God’s or ours. I don’t think he meant God’s permission but it would make sense in our tradition because anarthas don’t necessarily must be removed by force. Kubja came to Krishna full of anarthas and He didn’t inconvenience her experience in any way, as an example. If St Gregory means these demons need our permission then it means the permission to be led astray, not the permission to give up our anarthas. In any case, the real problem is our pride, it lies in our conviction that we deserve a much higher spiritual status. The Lord, out of a desire to protect us, Himself protects us from deviations and engages us in proper service leading to genuine humility so that we don’t make ourselves and Him, by association, the subject of ridicule and drive people away from devotional service. He tries to instill this humility in us before we fall victim to prelests.
Demons need to be battled but this is the calling of the strong, not of the weak. Neophytes, therefore, are advised to retreat and escape and avoid prelests entering into their hearts. Otherwise they’d be slaughtered and so hiding in fear will save them for now.
St Gregory then turns to his interlocutor and advises him, acknowledging his eagerness to succeed in prayer, to never give in to visions of angels, Christ, saints etc, no matter how convincing they appear. The mind already is prone to day dreaming, so don’t help. It projects the images of one’s desires and if one starts contemplating them he puts himself in mortal danger. Memory of good and bad things also get projected by the mind and dwelling on them is equally dangerous. Start thinking about it and you’ll become a day dreamer, not a hesychast or the “silent one”. Therefore we should not give assent to any of this imagery, unless collaborated by senior and more experienced practitioners. Whenever something like this comes, we should strive to keep the mind colorless and formless.
This is an unusual advice for us – we are supposed to engage the mind in Krishna’s service and Krishna is blue and has a form, but this is what St Gregory says. Ordinarily, our mind takes the form of the object it is attracted to and by studying this mindform one can learn the nature of the object itself. Modern understanding, for example, is that healing herbs of Ayyrveda were discovered through trial and error and that it’s a collective wisdom of the ages, but Vedic explanation is that these healing properties are discovered through meditation. You let your mind become totally absorbed in a plant and its environment and gradually gradually you will start to understand it, understand what it wants, what it does, what is capable of, how it relates to other plants and substances etc. Then you will know how to use it. It’s an impressive power but we should admit that it is not at all helpful for our cause. Our minds should become free from all material forms until they become naturally attracted to Krishna Himself. Filling them with artificial imagery is rejected here and I think we should reject it in our practice, too. It might look like we are looking at a picture of Krishna but unless it is self manifested or drawn exactly to instructions of a qualified guru we are looking at artist’s projection of his own mind. He thinks that Krishna should smile like that or hold His flute like that or sit like that and so on. There are also thousands of pictures of babies colored in photoshop to look blue and being presented as “Krishna”. That’s not how Krishna appears in this world and it’s not how He should appear in our minds. I’m with St Gregory on this one – a lot of this imagery should not be allowed into our minds. Also “mantra” means that which relieves the mind of being addicted to such imagery among other things. Hare Krishna mantra does not need mediation by the mind, it can go straight from the ear to the heart. The mind can purify itself or it can take a hike – we are not our minds.
Anyway, St Gregory says that sometimes it’s the Lord Himself who tests our free will by tempting us with these things. He insists that none of this should be accepted unless approved by our seniors, even if it comes from Krishna directly. After all, Krishna is a known liar crooked in three places – who in his right mind would take any of what He says seriously? Of course one must know Krishna first before deciding when to listen to Him and when to listen to one’s heart. Therefore St Gregory says that neophytes should trust only their hearts and not what appears in their minds. He says that the Lord does not deceive those who listen to their hearts and check with their superiors, though there have been occasions when He was angry for ignoring Him. I don’t know what historical episodes St Gregory mean here. I guess it would be like Madhavendra Puri refusing sweet rice in Remuna or a pot of milk at Govardhan – both were sent by Krishna and rejecting them would have been inappropriate. I would say that Madhavendra Puri knew in his heart that these gifts were not to be turned away and Krishna counted on his heart, too. In general, however, the Lord is pleased when we put our trust into His devotees instead of relying only on ourselves.
This brings us to a question of guru – who is guru? Who can we trust? Not everybody, says St Gregory, but those who have been given responsibility to lead others and who themselves lead exemplary lives and, as he quotes the scripture, enrich others while remaining poor themselves. I don’t think he concludes this topic properly, being carried away by discussion on the prayer itself, but the gist of it is already given here – the guru is the one who is entrusted with care for others and he should posses keen discrimination. St Gregory says that inexperienced taking charge of unintelligent will pay for this dearly after death, and then goes into the discussion on the necessary level of discrimination. Guru, sadhu, sastra – he says, with sastra being the pivot of it all. He talks about different kinds of discrimination of which only spiritual one is truly important and attaining it is not easy. One must follow the scripture and reflect on it with humility. It’s hard to find those who stay clear of temptations and have reached maturity because the devil tests one every step of the way. There is a quote given there, too – you can make friendship with many but spiritual advisors are one in a thousand.
St Gregory then reiterates the path of the “silent one” in this regard – one should approach the prayer with great humility and great trepidation, inquiring from his spiritual guides. One should realize the extent of his own impurities and repent his inability to follow strictly, always being afraid of falling back into maya, just as Srila Prabhupada once said he prayed for this every day. This is our great weapon, says St Gregory – humility and prayer. In this way even when joy comes we will spare ourselves from being affected by pride. Again he talks about special kind of warmth that comes from the Lord, different from joys of this world. God’s reciprocation fills us with more humility and the warmth of His embrace burns out all the remnants of our desires, naturally silencing our mind. It doesn’t come from the outside but it streams from inside of our hearts out. We should strive for this source of warmth, for the Lord, in full trust in His assurance that He exists, that He is with us, and that He loves us.
If we see someone falling away we should know that the cause of it is pride and arrogance. The protection, again, is humility and genuine inquiry and search for the Holy Name, which will never harm us. But even if such sincere people appear to fall down we should understand that it’s just testing and that it soon follows by Lord’s personal help. So do not try to be smart and do not try to impress others – that is the best defense against falling into delusion. Stick to this royal road. Excess in anything leads to conceit and conceit leads to delusions, and therefore we should cultivate three virtues – self-control, silence, and humility. These three virtues nourish each other and together increase our thirst for chanting.
St Gregory concludes the chapter by describing the appearance of the Holy Name. Some would experience incredible awe that would melt away mountains of desires in their hearts. Whatever was there blocking our way will be destroyed and the body would feel like it has become dead. Others would experience earth shattering jubilation, the state of exultation described by Church fathers. And, finally, those who were really successful in prayer would experience the sense of peaceful and illuminating light in their hearts. That’s how the Holy Name (or Jesus Christ, in St Gregory’s case) makes our hearts into His own dwelling place – it’s through the flow of illuminating light, and this is the perfection of prayer.
The book ends with an answer to a question and in Russian edition it’s presented as a separate chapter.
Q: What to do when the devil transforms himself and presents as an angel?
St Gregory doesn’t give a direct practical answer, ie what to actually do when it happens, but he gives a valuable advice on how to distinguish demons from angels – by their effects on our consciousness. He says demons can’t replicate what Lord’s grace does to our hearts. The Lord’s mercy makes us gentle, welcoming, humble, serene, free from envy and enmity, and it curbs our lust and greed. This cannot be faked. Appearance of pride, vanity, and haughtiness can’t be ignored either, and this is what is produced by devil, not by the Lord. That is St Gregory’s ultimate test, and test we must. He implores us to become “guru”, in the meaning of “heavy”, and do not get easily carried away by whatever comes. Everything must be considered very carefully before being accepted as truth. This answer is a little different from the advice to check everything with senior devotees given earlier. Here St Gregory tells us to develop the “noetic sense” so that we can distinguish between genuine mercy and delusions presented by the devil. He compares it to distinguishing between vinegar and wine or lettuce and mustard – I’m not sure about translations, but the point is that they look the same and one must test them with his tongue to spot the difference. Similarly, we should develop our spiritual sense to distinguish between grace and delusion.
This is the end of the book and the end of the summary. It took me a long time, two and a half months, but I never gave up and never paused contemplating on these things. The main, most time consuming part, was bringing these words into my own life. There is the part about being inside one’s heart, for example. It’s one thing to translate it or comment on it and quite another to actually gain at least some experience. Will it even work? Yes, it will, and now I can say this with confidence of personal experience. The part about restraining one’s food intake is also easy to translate but difficult to follow for more than a few days, at least for me, but I also at least know now what it feels like and how to do it. In some ways I would like to go back and re-write some paragraphs in the light of my personal experiences but that would be too much for me now. So, please accept it as it is and keep in mind that these things are “live”. They are not just words on the screen but ideas and concepts that WILL interact with you and WILL fill you with understanding and, more importantly, with experiences as you allow them into your consciousness. In the process of such meditation and reflection your mind takes the shape of the thing and starts to behave accordingly, and in this way we get to gain first hand experience ourselves. Admittedly, only glimpses of experience because we are not cave dwelling monks, but enough to give us a taste of what is to come in the future. I’m definitely not the same person as I was at the start of this post and I hope this summary of St Gregory of Sinai’s teachings will make a meaningful change in your life, too.