Thai Bhagavad Gita

I needed a quick place to show the state of the digital version of Thai Bhagavad Gita to people and thought that WP would be easy to post and access but the book is too big for it to handle. On my mobile phone it wouldn’t load at all and even on the computer it takes forever, and since WP doesn’t trim posts on the front page this whole blog became unusable, so Gita had to be moved – to git(a)hub, as it turned out.

Right now it can be found here. Need a picture of the real book for thumbnail and there are lots of characters displayed improperly on mobiles so it’s work in progress. Once done, will send it to vedabase.io.

Actually, any website that wants to display it can use it, too, I mean if it’s presented correctly etc and if local BBT doesn’t mind. This is not an invitation to scrap it off the github without saying a word, though.

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Congregational plans

This weekend there was a presentation in our temple by a devotee from ISKCON’s Congregational Development Ministry and it was called “Gita for everyone”. I didn’t think much about it and sat down to listen just like everybody else.

The class was illustrated by PowerPoint slides and right in the beginning the devotee said that we should present Bhagavad Gita in a way that is easy, practical, and fun. There was a slide for that as well and it was repeated quite a few times. These Gita meetings should be held regularly and were compared to book clubs, with an appropriate slide of what book clubs are expected to look like – several women lounging about.

Somehow I just don’t see myself as part of that scene, though. I don’t know anyone who goes to book clubs, I understand it’s something bored American housewives do when they need an excuse to start drinking early. I assume they talk about books, of course, but what attracts them to this activity is not what attracts people to Bhagavad Gita, which is certainly not “easy” or “fun”. Or maybe it is now – perhaps I’m completely out of touch with times.

When I joined we were replicating ISKCON of Srila Prabhupada’s time. If we said Krishna Consciousness was easy we meant “drop everything and simply move into the temple”. When we said it was “practical” we meant there was always something to do and we could take part in the most exalted activity – sankirtana mission of Lord Caitanya. When we said it was “fun” we meant uninterrupted flow of nectar of sankirtana pastimes. None of that is compatible with book club settings.

Does it work elsewhere? I remember a devotee who hosts a local bhakti-vṛkṣa program shared her realizations once and her speech was heart rending, not “easy, practical, and fun”. In my view devotees should take Bhagavad Gita way more seriously than was suggested, and they already do.

I’m afraid we substitute real values we should be attracted to in the Gita by values common to modern society – “easy, practical, and fun”. It means we seek low effort (easy), we seek personal profits (practical), and we seek personal enjoyment (fun). I’m afraid all sorts of things will go wrong if we approach Krishna Consciousness with these expectations.

Maybe for some people making donations or offering food immediately brings undeniable prosperity but I’m not one of them. Even if it works it’s still only a karma-miśra-bhakti. I’m sure it’s very attractive to many but weren’t we supposed to propagate pure devotion, not get rich quick schemes?

There was a senior devotee who took interest in me once and the first thing he asked was about what attracts me to Krishna Consciousness. He was visibly relieved when I didn’t say “I like the food, the kirtans, the clothes – the culture”. I know it works for some but there are way too many people who aren’t in the least bit impressed by it. I mean we have the entire Krishna West, after all.

Anyway, from this point in the presentation I realized that I’m not going to be the part of this congregation, it’s just not for me. I have nothing against the devotee doing it, he was very sincere and very sure of what he was saying. As his personal service to the Lord it was certainly great – for him. The sad irony – for me – was that his service is officially called “outreach” and his stated goal was to turn every house on the planet into Krishna temple, and there I was not feeling it at all.

That is not to say I had no interest whatsoever – the biggest part of his presentation was showing how to make sense of Bhagavad Gita – 800 pages, three sections, eighteen chapters etc. When he was asking for each chapter’s title, for example, I tried to volunteer answers just like everybody else – it WAS fun, but it was fun of showing off your memory skills or the fun of showing off your erudition. I’m actually somewhat ashamed I fell for this old trick.

Making sense of the Gita is a big project and it brings the sense of accomplishment, plus it gives you an “inside knowledge” against which you can test anyone you meet with your “do you know that?” questions. I’m too old for this, however, and I know first hand that this kind of knowledge doesn’t last. Chapter titles, verse numbers, Sanskrit and translations – all these things gradually get washed away from the memory, they are impermanent and, therefore, they are not what we should focus on in our studies of Bhagavad Gita.

Actually, the clues were right there in the presentation itself – one verse, even remembering one single word from Bhagavad Gita can relieve the soul from all material contamination. But “remembering” here means something different. It’s not being able to repeat “sarva dharman parityajya” and then claim that you are free from sins, it’s the actual experience of giving up everything and actually feeling weight coming off your shoulders. You don’t even have to remember words for it to happen – this process of surrendering to Krishna comes BEFORE its expression in thoughts and, subsequently, in words. It’s not a mental activity for our minds.

If you say “sarva dharman” but then seek easiness, practicality, and fun it means you haven’t actually abandoned all those other religions and haven’t embraced surrendering to Krishna as your only activity, as your only life and soul.

If the presenter only paused and considered the import of the quotes he included in his presentation he would have realized that it came out as inconsistent – there was a Prabhupada’s quote that during these regular Bhagavad Gita meetings we should chant its hymns and slokas we reverence and devotion, not ease and fun. How did they miss that?

My answer is that this understanding of Bhagavad Gita and what is attractive about it is superficial. Or that they say these things to the larger audience and therefore do not share their personal realizations. Which is another way to say “it’s superficial”. I hope it works and they can attract and maintain a very large congregation. I’m just not going to be a part of it.

PS. One other thing – supplementing your talks with PowerPoint presentations was cool twenty years ago and being attracted to these “marvels” of technology indicates another anartha. Proper sharing of realizations goes straight to the heart of the listener and so relying on visuals is a poor substitution when the real thing is absent. Do it for iPhones, not for imparting transcendental knowledge.

PPS. I didn’t have the heart to express my doubts about that talk publicly, everybody thought it was a success and this is where the future lies. Devotees have become so hopeful I don’t want to discourage them. I can’t pretend I share their enthusiasm either. I hope it won’t become a problem.

Vanity thought #1777. Missing things

One more important holiday that happened during my absence here was Gītā Jayanti. I don’t think I’ve ever paid serious attention to it in my life and I missed it this time around, too. It’s big in India, sure, but ISKCON temple where I grew up had Prabhupāda marathon taking up all energy and focus on this day. It was never a time to celebrate anything, only work our socks off trying to distribute as many books as possible.

I also must admit that I have never been a Gītā man. I know devotees who read Bhagavad Gītā every day just as they chant their rounds. My daily requirement is to read something from Bhāgavatam, which I, personally, consider the book of all books. I also feel distance from Lord Caitanya if I don’t read something about him, but another must is something about Śrīla Prabhupāda, either his biographies or devotees reminiscing about him. Bhagavad Gītā, I’m sorry to say, comes last on the list. Apart from that I read other books, like that Mystic Universe. Recently I also got Rāmāyaṇa by Bhakti Vikasa Swami – never knew he had a translation and it’s not on vedabase website. I was told that it’s more Prabhupāda-like in its approach rather than general story telling. The book starts with discussing personality of Rāma as the Supreme Lord, for example. Other storytellers simply state it once and move along but Bhakti Vikasa Svami really dwells on the subject of tattva there. That’s as far as I have progressed so far, sorry.

Still, the importance of Bhagabad Gītā cannot be overestimated. I remember once, many many years ago, I opened it on a random page and it said that reading even a few words from it can free oneself from the burden of all his karma, and at that moment I really felt like my accumulated karma disappeared from the back of my consciousness. Like a heavy weight you carry on your shoulders for so long you don’t even realize it’s there anymore, and then it’s lifted and you suddenly feel so light you feel you are a different person now.

There was a time when I tried to memorize Gītā verses, got to the middle of the second chapter, and then abandoned the idea when I had to move to a new place for while. I “pirated” Gītā content from vedabase and tweaked it to show Sanskrit and translation and collapse purports – it’s easier to read for memorizing that way. During that time I used to recite the verses from the beginning several times a day but now they are all gone from my memory and it’s this memory loss that stops me from resuming it again. What can I do? I tried, but that approach was clearly not for me.

I’ve also got to participate in book distribution this year and I helped to sell two Gītās. Not much but I’ll remember it for much longer than verses themselves, that’s for sure. I’ve also attended Marathon evening program at my local temple where they encouraged devotees to distribute books. I still don’t understand how it’s supposed to work, it just doesn’t make sense to me.

They’ve asked everyone to make “pledges”, that is to take a certain amount of books and pledge to give money for them. Some gave money upfront, most had their names entered into a ledger. The books were immediately put into their custody and they transferred them to their cars. As far as I understand, the temple doesn’t care whether they sell these books or give them away, all the book distribution for that (this, actually) month was done in the space of half an hour it took them to take the pledges. Maybe someone would pledge more later but overall that was it. “I pledge fifty Bhagavad Gītās” – “Jaya!”

I really don’t know how this shift in book distribution happened. I understand in India they get businessmen to give huge amounts of money and then book count goes to a devotee who took it. The second part is then to go out and give the books away. I don’t know how it works – if they collect donations before December and only give the books away during the Marathon – should they be counted for December or for November, too? What if they only collect donations during the Marathon and give away actual books after New Year?

It used to be individual devotees going out with books, meeting individual people, taking their money and giving them books immediately. The end result might be the same – money comes into the treasury and books are going to people, but this change of method changed how benefits are distributed, too. I mean when Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira conducted sacrifices he was supposed to be the main beneficiary and he got all the credit. It was HIS rajāsūya sacrifice, not anybody else’s. Many people have helped to collect the money for it, there were priests who conducted it on his behalf, there were brāhmaṇas who got gifts at the end and they all got something out of it, but it was still Yudhiṣṭhira’s sacrifice, not theirs.

When we sell a book to an individual and he pays his own money it’s HIS sacrifice and we are more like priests assisting him. All the main benefit goes to him according to how much he gave in proportion to his abilities. Who is the main beneficiary when one man gives the money and another gets a book? Obviously the donor, but the recipient will get a benefit later if he reads it and takes its instructions to the heart. A devotee in this case benefits twice – first when he assists the donor and then again when he puts a book in someone’s hand, but then again – these might be different devotees working as a team. It would certainly make more sense because collecting thousands of dollars/rupees in donations requires different skills then finding thousands of people ready to take the books.

The main point to consider here, however, is whether the books will have the same effect or not. If people take them like they do with “lose fat” pamphlets given out on the streets – carry them until they find a nearest bin, then what is the benefit of the whole sacrifice from start to finish? Donor’s money will all be wasted because his sacrifice isn’t actually complete until people start reading and become devotees, even if for a minute of their lives. As far as I remember, Prabhupāda’s instructions on this were clear – do not give books away for free, people should value them and this will force them to treat them with respect and try to extract as much benefit from reading them as possible to recoup their “investment”.

Having paid for the books isn’t a requirement for becoming a devotee, of course, but I have another post in mind to discuss how this physical arrangement matters, too. So, tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1573. The roots

When I remembered yesterday that the roots of our saṅkīrtana movement are right there in the Bhagavad Gītā it made me think twice about it. However special saṅkīrtana feels to us, it isn’t, but it doesn’t mean that all the other spiritual paths are the same either.

Specifically, I meant last verses spoken by Kṛṣṇa to Arjuna and they start right after sarva-dhramān parityajya, from 18.67 on:

  • Bg 18.66 — Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.
  • Bg 18.67 — This confidential knowledge may never be explained to those who are not austere, or devoted, or engaged in devotional service, nor to one who is envious of Me.
  • Bg 18.68 — For one who explains this supreme secret to the devotees, pure devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me.
  • Bg 18.69 — There is no servant in this world more dear to Me than he, nor will there ever be one more dear.

There are three more left, including the important one about studying the Gītā, but they are just concluding verses not particularly relevant here.

Bhagavad Gītā is pretty detailed on certain subjects, many topics are covered in multiple locations and there are verses that are repeated twice, too, but it doesn’t mean that these three bolded ones are insignificant in the overall scheme of things, especially the last one where Kṛṣṇa says that there’s no one more dear to Him than one who preaches on His behalf.

Lord Caitanya didn’t introduce anything new in this regard but He inaugurated actual fulfillment of this promise and brought it to the masses. It was staring right into everyone faces but hardly anyone could do anything about it, it was more of an academical proposition. People fancied the next verse more: “..he who studies this sacred conversation of ours worships Me by his intelligence.” That they can do but I would argue that it’s not the same thing, not even close.

Let’s see what Kṛṣṇa’s instructions on preaching are first. There are two – don’t do this and please do that. We are explicitly prohibited from explaining Bhagavad Gītā to sense enjoyers, non-devotees, and atheists. Those who are “not austere” are the ones who are too attached to sense gratification and openly laugh in our faces that there’s no way they are giving up meat, sex, or alcohol. If people cannot contemplate or appreciate such “tapasya” they are not ready for the message and we are forbidden from preaching to them.

This makes sense. Bhagavad Gītā starts with establishing our spiritual nature and supremacy of the soul over the body. Those who are not ready to accept this message are still animals and for them there are other appropriate ways of advancement. Bhagavad Gītā is called the essence of all upaniṣads for a reason, it’s not meant for animals. Consequently, the first thing to tell people about it is that they are not their bodies. Not about Kṛṣṇa, not about the holy name, not about devotional service, but the simple truth about not being these bodies. If that doesn’t register it’s time to move on and look for someone on a more appropriate stage of evolution.

One thing we shouldn’t do is to walk away smug and proud. There’s a similar prohibition against denigrating nascent spiritual activities of those in the lower form of consciousness. We should never ever disturb them but rather encourage them following their rules and regulations which would gradually elevate them to the point where they are finally ready to listen to Bhagavad Gītā. We must accept this with utmost humility and be people’s genuine well-wishers, it’s a great loss that despite their outwardly human form of life they are not ready for Gītā yet.

Lord Caitanya’s mercy for them manifests in the form of prasādam and chanting of the holy name as a leisure activity – let them have fun with it if that’s what they like. Let them come to concerts where the holy name is sung in public, at this point it doesn’t matter much if the performers are devotees themselves. Let them hold Bhagavad Gītā in their hands and let them feel our own respect and appreciation for it, maybe some of it will rub off on them, too.

Second condition is against preaching to non-devotees. On the surface it disqualifies practically everybody but what we should look for is people’s favorable attitude towards God, however they understand the concept. We say the word, people know it, and we can judge their devotion by their reactions. Those who even tacitly agree that God must be served and worshiped are devotees. It’s that simple.

Alternatively, everybody is a devotee, they just don’t know it yet, it’s their constitutional position. Expert saṅkīrtana devotees can awaken this dormant quality in people and find a platform where they are comfortable with acknowledging it in public, even if by mere silence. When we learn to see everyone as a devotee people will behave accordingly and we will create a good company anywhere we go. If we see them as envious atheists they will behave accordingly, too. It’s quantum mechanics of human relationships – the behavior of the observed object depends on the observer himself. Not always and not in full but enough for saṅkīrtana devotees to get a foot in the door of their soul and pry it open.

If we fail to do so and people remain envious of God as we subtly breach the subject there’s nothing to do for us there anymore, we should just move on, time is short, there are people out there who would benefit if we bring our books to them instead.

In the next verse we have Kṛṣṇa giving a guarantee that one who preaches Bhagavad Gītā will return to Him, but, most importantly, Kṛṣṇa guarantees bhakti. No other process deserves that, there’s no yoga to achieve bhakti, no other method that works. One could say that by the mercy of Lord Caitanya those who chant the holy name can achieve bhakti but that chanting must be congregational, it must be saṅkīrtana, which only confirms uniqueness of Kṛṣṇa’s promise here.

Saṅkīrtana means preaching, it means discussing Lord’s glories in the company of devotees, it means teaching others. One could argue that congregational chanting is not preaching per se but he would be wrong. This is the topic I wanted to cover initially but I ran out of space today.

Here’s the summary of how these three verses fit into a bigger picture – preaching is our shortcut to bhakti. Those who say that Bhagavad Gītā is only preliminary spiritual knowledge and we should learn more from Bhāgavatam, Caitanya Caritāmṛta and Gosvāmī’s books miss the point that those advanced scriptures are meant for those have bhakti already, who have already surrendered to Kṛṣṇa and thus achieved liberation. If we approach these books in a lower consciousness we won’t get their benefit. Moreover, if we approach those books thinking that we are so must more advanced than students of Gītā we will only further sink in ignorance and deprive ourselves of true spiritual life forever.

So we should take a piece of straw in our mouths, bow down before Bhagavad Gītā and humbly take these simple Kṛṣṇa’s instructions as our life and soul. Those chasing “higher” truth might as well be chasing butterflies, we should pay no attention to them and their boasting. Properly dealing with those people requires considerable skill but this topic is also beyond the scope of today’s post, too.

Vanity thought #1572. Take the message

It’d be criminal to miss the occasion of Gītā-jayanti when talking about saṅkīrtana. It so happens that every year Gītā-jayanti falls during Prabhupāda marathon, too. Is it a coincidence? Trick question.

For armchair experts in Kṛṣṇa consciousness there’s no significance of Gītā-jayanti and Prabhupāda marathon happening at the same time. Gītā-jayanti has been celebrated for thousands of years while we invented Prabhupāda marathon less than fifty years ago, it happens in December to take advantage of Christmas shopping spree in the West. There’s no relation there, it certainly wasn’t planned. While we do appreciate Gītā-jayanti as an important vaiṣṇava holiday our saṅkīrtana marathon runs on its own schedule.

Factually, this might be true – for armchair experts, but no saṅkīrtana devotee can allow himself to treat Gītā-jayanti this way. Coincidence or not, historical facts or not, but both Bhagavad Gītā and saṅkīrtana are manifestations of Lord’s mercy to fallen conditioned souls and saṅkīrtana runs on this mercy so you can’t seriously say that there’s no relation. Where others see a coincidence saṅkīrtana devotees see infusion of Kṛṣṇa’s mercy just when they need it the most. You don’t dismiss such help, you can’t afford to.

The argument can be made that while Gītā-jayanti itself was clearly a boon to the world, the annual remembrance of this occasion doesn’t have the same power. Well, let’s consider how it might work. Book distributors in India can basically shame anyone they meet into buying a Gītā on this day because every Indian knows he has to pay his dues to the Lord, it’s a one day in a year where they just can’t refuse.

In the West situation is obviously different, they have no idea what Gītā-jayanti is and feel no obligations about it whatsoever. Still, a devotee might tell them that this is Gītā’s birthday and it’s celebrated by hundreds of millions of people who appreciate Gītā’s message and that anyone can join in. Shaming people over birthday might work, if not on everyone but still there are those who feel more charitable on birthdays.

There’s a subtle way Gītā-jayanti might influence book distribution, too – it inspires book distributors themselves and so they carry the power of Lord’s inspiration with them. It definitely affects their preaching and affects everyone coming in contact with them. This appreciation for Lord’s delivery of Bhagavad Gītā might be the one last step that carries us over a line into the land where we finally become Lord Caitanya’s instruments rather than perpetual doubters. “Oh, Gītā-jayanti won’t work, it can’t work, it makes no sense – just see, let me approach that man and tell him about it, see how he doesn’t care, it’s all just a date in our calendar, it doesn’t have an effect on the rest of the world.”

Nope, it won’t work with an attitude like that and if we sense it in ourselves we should purge it immediately, we can’t allow it to nest in our minds. The gift of Gītā-jayanti works for those who humbly take all the help from the Lord that is offered and know that even a tiny drop of it can change people’s lives forever. When devotees realize its value themselves they can easily convince others to appreciate it, too.

There could be a yet subtler way that Gītā-jayanti matters – by changing the invisible force that runs the universe. A slight change in how guṇas operate might create a slightly different atmosphere that becomes conducive to discussing spiritual topics. People’s minds might become more receptive, some dirt in their consciousness that is blocking their spiritual advancement might be removed – we can’t see any of these things but they are entirely possible.

Finally, on the occasion of Gītā-jayanti the Supersoul Himself can simply urge people from within to buy the books from us. Somewhat crude but irresistible, and saṅkīrtana devotees know that it might easily happen by the grace of Lord Caitanya. That’s why they would never ever turn away such a self-manifested opportunity to pray for extra mercy as Gītā-jayanti.

I would also argue that Gītā-jayanti is a true saṅkīrtana holiday. Various incarnations and ācāryas could be considered patrons of various aspects of devotional service, Lord Nṛsiṁha, for example, offers us physical protection, Śrīla Gaurakiśora Dāsa Bābājī offers shelter to renunciates, and so on. In the same vein saṅkīrtana devotees are sons of Bhagavad Gītā.

It’s the most important among our books for general population, all our preaching to people on the streets is done from Bhagavad Gītā, not from Śrīmad Bhāgavatam or Teachings of Lord Caitanya, and Kṛṣṇa delivering Bhagavad Gītā to Arjuna was exactly the aspect of His personality that eventually manifested Lord Caitanya Himself, at least as far as His saṅkīrtana movement is concerned.

Here’s another thing to consider in this regard – there were two reasons for Lord Caitanya’s appearance, inaugurating the saṅkīrtana movement being the external one and experiencing devotee’s love for God being the internal and therefore the more important one. Our first reaction is to go for the best and think of saṅkīrtana as being lesser, but saṅkīrtana devotees embrace their mission with true humility in their hearts and realize that lesser or not, but the drops of this mercy coming their way is all they ever need in their lives.

People might argue about saṅkīrtana being inferior all they want but it delivers. Their artificial attempts to taste the “higher” nectar is self-delusion and nothing else. A truly humble devotee does not grab the best service but takes whatever is ordered, and our orders are to preach. As long as we are in these bodies that’s what we should do, if later on the Lord will require something different it doesn’t matter now. The argument can also be made that by taking the most insignificant service as our life and soul we please guru and Kṛṣṇa much better than trying to be big, important, and indispensable.

Saṅkīrtana devotee knows that he is totally dispensable and has absolutely no value to anyone without Lord’s mercy flowing through his body to the public. He won’t abandon this service no matter what, not for any promises of higher rasa if he’d just give it up and read about Kṛṣṇa’s intimate pastimes. It’s nonsense to even consider this proposition, it might impress only those who lack humility and have no access to Lord Caitanya’s mercy of saṅkīrtana whatsoever. Deprived of actual spiritual realization of being in service to saṅkīrtana they invent poor substitutees, that’s all.

I’ll just add that Kṛṣṇa Himself says at the end of the Gītā that there’s no more dear devotee to Him than they one who peaches this message to others (BG 18.69). We might also consider a couple of preceding verses clarifying what exactly Kṛṣṇa meant by preaching there (BG 18.67):

    This confidential knowledge may never be explained to those who are not austere, or devoted, or engaged in devotional service, nor to one who is envious of Me.

Hmm, this clarification needs a separate explanation of how it should be applied practically, so I’ll just leave it here as a warning first.

Vanity thought #1199. Gita for all

Today is Gīta Jayanti and so everything else takes the second fiddle, including ekādaśī. After all, Bhagavad Gīta is like a Hindu Bible, the most famous and indisputable text for the whole of Hinduism. It’s not an equivalent in any other sense, though.

Ontologically, Śrīmad Bhāgavatam would be closer to the Bible in scope and purpose, or rather the other way around – Bible would be like Bhāgavatam for mlecchas. No one knows how Bible was composed, both Gīta and Bhāgavatam describe their appearance and circumstances surrounding it in great detail. Skeptics can still call it mythology but no one can deny that they fit perfectly in the overall narrative and there’s absolutely nothing there that can be dismissed outright.

Skeptics might question the numbers related to the battle of Kurukṣetra but who can go as far as doubt that some sort of a battle really happened there? If there was a battle, what’s the problem with motivational speeches given there?

Skeptics can rightfully point to “magic” deployed by Sañjaya to relate what Kṛsṇa was saying to Arjuna while being in the tent of Dhṛtarāṣṭra miles away but we can let this argument go because it’s not how Gīta was related but what was said there that’s important. So what if there were other witnesses who memorized Kṛṣṇa’s instructions and wrote them down later?

It would matter to us because we accept infallibility of the śāstra and our ācāryas so we take description of Sañjaya in deep mediation being able to hear Kṛṣṇa’s words literally but it wouldn’t matter to skeptics as long as they agree on the content. Let them think whatever they want as long as they have a reason to take Kṛṣṇa’s instructions seriously. Let them take their baby steps, we don’t mind.

Here they would have a reason to contest exact wording, though. For us Gīta is sacred down to every syllable but this is actually what I wanted to discuss today.

First, there ARE differences in Gīta manuscripts yet they are all remarkably close to each other despite being separated by centuries. My words have little weight here, however, I haven’t seen neither the manuscripts nor descriptions of them. Scholars say that there are differences in about 10% of Mahābhārata lines, I think it’s safe to guess that Gīta wasn’t untouched, too. The oldest Gīta manuscript is dated 15th century, most modern editions are printed from manuscripts coming from the 18th and 19th.

Gīta is not śruti, it’s smṛti, so variations are acceptable as long as the meaning is the same, shouldn’t bother us that much.

What’s more important is what we consider as “Gīta”. On the occasion of Gīta Jayanti Hindus all over the world set up public Gīta recitations and ISCKON is no different. One can find audio recordings of such recitation on the internet and listen to them. What happens, however, is that it doesn’t register with those who don’t know Sanskrit, just goes into one ear and out of the other.

The sound might be transcendental, if you are lucky to hear Gīta from devotees, but if you don’t understand the words it doesn’t engage mind and intelligence. I hope it still acts on the soul itself but that would be ajñāta sukṛti, not engaging our minds in devotional service. Kṛṣṇa says that those who listen to Gīta perform a sacrifice but if our minds are not engaged then what is the value of our hearing?

To actually hear Bhagavad Gita and engage ourselves in proper śravaṇam we need to hear it from a spiritual master in the language we can understand. For many of us it’s English but any other language is fine, too.

Simply hearing Gīta or reading translations does not bring any spiritual realization, it’s been done for centuries with zero effect, that’s why we insist on “Bhagavad Gīta As It Is”, the first Gīta spoken in English. Well, written, but there’s little practical difference here. To speak Gīta one must represent a proper disciplic succession and Śrīla Prabhupāda was the first ever devotee to do so in English language. That’s why it’s spiritually potent while numerous other renditions are spiritually sterile.

Consider various other options. What if Śrīla Prabupāda published only Sanskrit verses transliterated into English alphabet without translations and purports? Would it have ANY effect? No. The spiritual power comes from him speaking actual English words.

What if Prabhupāda didn’t write translations but only purports? Would it have any effect? Yes, why not? He wrote plenty of books explaining the same things Kṛṣṇa said in Gīta and they touched people’s hearts all the same. He often quoted Sanskrit verses and provided not direct translations but explanations as relevant to the topic at hand and it worked.

Do translations have any special status? I don’t think so. There’s no such thing as “translation” anyway, it’s all only interpretation of Sanskrit words in the language of the listener. Sanskrit words can’t be replaced, their full meaning can never be disclosed in any other language, they have no equivalents, so every translation is just one possible interpretation of original meaning. Devotional interpretations stand out, of course, as closest to Kṛṣṇa’s actual intention.

Point is, as long as guru stays faithful to Kṛṣṇa’s teachings everything he says will have spiritual power.

Consider translations of our books, too. There’s no difference in potency between our editions of Bhagavad Gīta in all available languages, German, Spanish, Russian translations are equally powerful even though Prabhupāda didn’t speak or write in any of those languages.

There are numerous agents even between Śrīla Prabhupāda and readers of his English books. Everyone who works at BBT is contributing to the medium. Cover art, illustrations, fonts, quality of the paper – everything matters, everything contributes to overall perception. They can’t print white on white, for example, it would be unreadable. Likewise, they can’t have pages stuck together. Awesome illustrations add to the effect, too.

All of that is presentation by our collective “guru” who makes sure that Bhagavad Gīta manifests in our minds and touches our hearts. Śrīla Prabhupāda stays at the core of this presentation but, when reading books, he talks to us through their medium and through the medium of devotees who publish them.

That’s why popular criticism of BBT edits misses the point – every devotee who, through his service, leaves an impact on the book does so legitimately. Bhagavad Gīta is not a dead snapshot of history, it’s alive and it lives on the tongues of the devotees who bring it to us. We need their input, without it Gīta would never reach us at all.

Of course there’s a matter of faithful representation but it’s about representing devotion, not a collection of letters and words. Devotees who keep working on Gīta despite mountains of criticism and offenses against them deserve all respect and admiration. They KNOW the meaning of it, they realized it in their lives, they are fully authorized to speak it on behalf of Śrīla Prabhupāda and, ultimately, Kṛṣṇa. They do not make SPIRITUAL mistakes, the external form of their presentation being of less importance.

That’s why I suggest that on the day of Gīta Jayanti we should also contemplate when and how Bhagavad Gīta appears in our personal lives, which is the real advent, non-different from Kṛṣṇa speaking on the field of Kurukṣetra. Five thousand years and distance in space have no spiritual significance whatsoever, neither Gīta nor Kṛṣṇa are bound by such material considerations, they are not part of this material world to restrict them this way.

We should also remember our acintya-bheda-abheda tattva philosophy that tells us to see unity of all spiritual manifestations even though they appear as different. At the same time there’s no problem with celebrating them separately. Today is Kṛṣṇa’s day, He started it all, so He deserves a special tribute which, I hope we all have done one way or another.

Vanity thought #849. Gita jayanti

If you were going to a uninhabited island and there was only one book you could take, what would that be?

Gaudiya vaishnavas have three main books – Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, and Chaitanya Charitamrita, which one would you choose? Srila Prabhupada told us that Bhagavad Gita is an introduction to spiritual science, Srimad Bhagavatam is a graduate course, and Chaitanya Charitamrita is a postgraduate study. Which one to take?

I guess ISCKON devotees would go for Bhagavatam or Chaitanya Charitamrita. Bhagavatam is special for us because we listen to it every morning, it’s what separated temple devotees from the “plebes” who come only in the evenings or for Sunday lectures. With them we discuss Bhagavad Gita. “You are not your body” and all those basics. Bhagavatam is for mature devotees, it’s the real thing.

Another reason is that, unlike Gita, it’s so long, once you start reading it it would go on for years, and if you want to become an expert in quoting Sanskrit Bhagavatam is a real treasure. Chaitanya Charitamrita? Not so much, there are only a few verses “worth remembering” – jivera svarupa haya, kiba vipra kiba nyasi etc.

With Bhagavatam we are never finished – by the time you gone through all twelve cantos you forget what was there in the beginning so you must read it over and over again, and that is not touching tenth canto yet, which is the crown jewel we prepare ourselves for all our lives, and we are never ready. This makes Bhagavatam into a life long project, in fact the tenth canto is probably better left for the next incarnation altogether.

Chaitanya Charitamrita? Not so much. We mostly read it on holidays or other special occasions, and we think it’s full of Lord Chaitanya’s pastimes, ie “easy reading”. There’s also a fact that it’s not as heavily purported as Bhagavatam, sometimes you can go on for ten-twenty verses before you come across a commentary and it might be only a few lines one. In our public classes we tend to skip verses that have no purports so that makes Chaitanya Charitamrita not easy to give lectures from.

So, Bhagavatam it is, then.

Well, there are parts in Chaitanya Charitamrita that are very heavy on philosophy and there are purports there that go on for several pages, it’s called a post-graduate course for a reason, after all. Let me offer two of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s quotes on this:

    If somehow all the books in the world were destroyed, leaving only Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, the people of this world could still achieve the ultimate goal of life. Even if Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam were lost, leaving only Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, there would be no loss to humanity, for whatever has not been revealed in the Bhāgavatam is found in Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta.

and

    In due course māhā-pralaya (devastating floods) will inundate the entire universe. If you attempt to survive by swimming in that deluge, then do not neglect to take hold of Bhagavad-gītā, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, and Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta. Or if you cannot hold all three, then release Bhagavad-gītā. If necessary you may also relinquish Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, but under no circumstances release your hold on Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, for if this one book remains then the flood can do no actual damage, because after it has subsided, the message of śāstra can be revived from Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta alone, it being the essence of all śāstras.

Pretty clear, huh? The idea is that lots of people had read Srimad Bhagavatam before Lord Chaitanya but without His mercy the meaning was obscured, some even accuse Sridhara Swami of giving impersonal interpretation to it and others valued it only as book of Krishna’s adventures, especially with gopis.

Real message of Bhagavatam can be found only in and through Chaitanya Charitamrita and only through Lord Chaitanya’s mercy. Without Mahaprabhu Bhagavatam would be just another book for us, and we are also first and foremost servants of Lord Gauranga, whether Krishna will or will not accept us is a big question.

From this angle it doesn’t matter whether we understand Bhagavatam or not, we only need to stick to the shelter of Lord Chaitanya and Chaitanya Charitamrita, everything else will be revealed automatically.

Okay, but where does it leave humble Bhagavad Gita?

Is it really only ABC of spiritual knowledge that is not worth taking to the desert island? Not so fast.

All the spiritual knowledge is contained within Gita, it’s like the sound of om from which the entire universe unravels. Srila Prabhupada could easily deduce every complex spiritual problem to one or two Gita verses, we just need to understand them correctly. Everything that is in the Bhagavatam, all the lessons from Bhagavatam, can be found in Bhagavad Gita, we just need to know where and how to look.

Or let me put the original question this way – if you were going to the island but you couldn’t take any book with you at all, which one would you commit to the memory?

Bhagavad Gita, of course. There’s simply no way we can memorize Srimad Bhagavatam or Chaitanya Charitamrita, out of the question. Even memorizing seven hundred verses of Gita is a herculean task, but it’s totally worth it.

There’s an other argument in favor of the Gita – do you really consider yourself a fit student for Srimad Bhagavatam let alone Chaitanya Charitamrita? Remember the tenth canto prohibition? And Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati restricted his disciples from reading certain parts of Chaitanya Charitamrita, too.

Why would you take a book you are not qualified to read, not in full anyway?

No one will ever say you are not qualified to read Bhagavad Gita, you are safe here.

In the same vein – if Bhagavatam starts where Bhagavad Gita ends, which is sarva dharman parityajya, which is a liberated stage – is it really a book for you? Remember the atmarama verse, the one Lord Chaitanya explained in sixty different ways on two occasions, it comes right in the beginning of Bhagavatam and it sets the purpose for the whole book – these stories of Lord’s pastimes attract the liberated souls. It might be in the seventh chapter but it’s in the description of the Bhagavatam’s very creation (SB 1.7).

We are not there yet, we read them as stories, which is a valid reason in itself, but Gita is where we are at spiritually, that’s also a fact. We might take Bhagavatam because of its philosophy AND entertainment value, but for our spiritual progress – Gita is our only suitable shelter. We will never be able to express our debt to it in full, never. In this lifetime, mlecchas that we are, Gita is the book of our lives, we are too contaminated to read anything else.

Maybe that’s not much of a praise on the occasion of Gita Jayanti but that’s all I’ve got today.

Vanity thought #722. The right voice

Our whole tradition is based on hearing from the right sources. Mantras heard from unauthorized persons do not have power for us. They might work to summon dinner from the kitchen or for any other materialistic purpose but Krishna won’t reveal Himself if you hear His name from non-devotees, and hearing from mayavadis is like a spiritual suicide.

Also Sanskrit is a special language, so special that we recite verses in Sanskrit several times in the beginning of each class. It doesn’t even matter that at that point we don’t know the meaning of the lines and words yet, we believe that simply listening to Sanskrit is already beneficial.

So, with this in mind, I thought I’d get myself an audio of Bhagavad Gita. In Sanskrit. I don’t need the translations, I think they are pretty much like purports and even the lectures themselves because they serve the same purpose – to explain the meaning of Sanskrit.

This, btw, is the reason why I never take criticism of Srila Prabhupada’s translations seriously – there’s no standard in explaining the meaning, there’s such thing as a “perfect translation” that Prabhupada could be judged against. There’s no equivalent of Sanskrit in English, you can’t replace Sanskrit words with their English counterparts and make it equally divine.

Our only fidelity is to the purport of the scriptures as explained to us by our acharyas. We can judge Prabhupada only by comparing him to his spiritual master, not to a Sanskrit dictionary. As long as the meaning is the same as that of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, the translation is perfect, dictionaries or any other traditions are irrelevant and useless to spiritual impact, the critics only wasting everybody’s time trying to catch Prabhupada on mistranslations.

Anyway, I set out to download an mp3 from somewhere. Krishna Store has a few versions on sale but I’ve been spammed by Madhudvisa Prabhu’s constant complaints about ISKCON already, you buy something there once and he’ll keep sending all the updates on the big scary GBC and what not. Patronizing that store would be my last option.

Internet is full of Gita recitations, I assumed, but it turned out to be more complicated than simply downloading an mp3. Youtube is choke full of videos, for example, and it’s possible to extract mp3 from them but they all come with background music, often in low quality, and often only the first couple of chapters.

That’s when I noticed that the voice matters more than I thought. I excluded obvious mayavadis and tried downloading several files by unknown reciters. Some of them turned out to be women. No offense but I don’t see the point of singing the verses nicely in attractive female voices. Some have heavy Indian accent and when it shines through it’s like listening to a fat Indian lady who is simultaneously keeping and eye on a half a dozen naughty kids. The infections and intonations are too culturally conditioned for my ear.

Same goes for many male chanters, too. When I listened to some of them I saw respectable Indian gentlemen sitting in rooms with fans and sipping tea, the kind that have an opinion about everything and can’t wait to share it.

Some are obviously not very familiar with Sanskrit, judging by how they enunciate certain words but not others, all these defects are distracting, and pretty soon you wonder – why am I listening to this person? These words are just sounds to him, his mind is somewhere else.

That brought home the point about hearing only from devotees, preferably pure devotees.

What about Srila Prabhupada? Unfortunately he never chanted Sanskrit in classes, he usually let his disciples to handle that and started talking only after everybody heard the translation.

ISKCON Desire Tree site has one recital version for download and I got that, there’s also an old recording from some Czech devotee website that is mentioned in several places but I found it only on torrents.

In the end I have three versions that I think are safe to listen to but I’m still not satisfied.

One is heavily accented again. The way I see the accent here is imposing one’s material conditioning on transcendental sounds. What I hear is a peculiar Indian way of rising and lowering your voice or tone in certain parts of your sentences. After listening to the first chapter I caught myself copying the accent. Not ideal.

The other is way too slow. I don’t think it’s a problem with me, I don’t see the reason to chant so slowly. It might appear beautiful or it might appear meditative, mostly it’s theatric, and I don’t think it reflects the actual conversation between Krishna and Arjuna.

The third one is not as bad as the other two, and that’s all I can say about it.

All of these made me appreciate the dictum of our acharyas to hear about Krishna only from the right sources. A devotee would never make his chanting into a show, he would never infuse it with his own cultural atavisms either, his mind would always be completely absorbed in the meaning of what he says, and it would go straight to your heart.

A non-devotee, on the other hand, or a less pure devotee, would exhibit traces of his own conditioning, his own attitudes towards text and towards the subjects of glory and power, yoga and bhakti, God and surrender, his own judgments on what is right and what is wrong, and maybe even his own lust.

When I become a paramahamsa these contaminations won’t matter anymore but for now I, and also all of us, should be very careful with who we listen from, not only Gita and not only Sanskrit, this is just an illustration of the bigger, overriding principle.

Vanity thought #605. Ganesh

Today went to visit local Ganesh temple. It was surprisingly crowded and they turned it into a legitimate tourist attraction with a big parking lot, a market, restaurants, live music and what not.

I didn’t give it much thought until the very last moment when I stared at the largest Ganesh I’ve ever seen, wondering what I should do there as an aspiring follower of Srila Prabhupada. ISKCON pays more attention to demigods now, when we cultivate our congregation, but I don’t remember any particular instructions from Prabhupada’s books that could justify going to demigod temples.

Ganesh is, of course, a destroyer of obstacles and I know quite a few devotees who keep his deity around to help them in business but at the moment I don’t have any interests like that. What to do?

And then it dawned on me – Ganesh was the first one to hear Bhagavad Gita, as part of Mahabharata, and he also was the first one to write it down. That is more than enough to beg mercy of his lotus feet. Just imagine how Srila Vyasadev was reciting Gita verses and Ganesh was jotting it down. I bet there were quite a few moments where they just froze, stunned in their devotion.

Sarva dharman parityaja verse most certainly knocked them out, and I bet when they reached the end – “Wherever there is Kṛṣṇa, the master of all mystics, and wherever there is Arjuna, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be opulence, victory, extraordinary power, and morality” they weren’t able to continue for days.

At the temple grounds there were also lots of images of Ganesh’ carrier, the mouse. He looked very much like Disney character but I liked one particular “invention” – there was one special mouse people could whisper their wishes to. You speak into one ear and hold the other ear closed so that the wish stays inside and gets fulfilled.

There was a little discussion what language should we use as no one around spoke Sanskrit, presumably his native language. There was a long line and I was wondering what people were asking him about. Were they asking about their own welfare? Their families? Their boyfriends? Their jobs? Their health? I bet no one asked about their country or their politics. When it was my turn I just chanted Hare Krishna mantra and that was it.

When I got home I googled around and found plenty of Ganesha stories but nothing beats his writing of Mahabharata. Apparently Vyasa recited it without a pause, but only after Ganesh understood the meaning of what’s being said – that’s why I think that they were naturally stunned when they got to Bhagavad Gita. I mean once you understand the import of those verses there’s really nothing more to be said and no more pledges to fulfill. It’s surprising that they were able to continue at all, but that’s what Lord’s Maya potency is for, that’s why inhabitants of Vrindavana are able to continue with their service, too.

All in all it was a nice trip, perhaps one day I’ll figure out how to visit Rahu temple, too, I’ve heard that there’s one somewhere. This should be interesting.

Vanity thought #508. OMG!

“OMG – Oh My God!” is a name of a Hindi comedy about a little infidel swindler who gets his shop destroyed by a pinpoint earthquake. His insurance company refuses to pay up blaming it on the “Act of God” so the clever guy decides to take God to court to get his compensation. As God’s representatives he names local religious leaders of all available persuasions. Funny enough, God takes his side and appears as his savior when his life is threatened by religious fanatics. I didn’t quite follow the ensuing melodrama but it predictably ended with the infidel being converted. Two moments make it worthwhile to sit through it – when Bhagavan, appearing as the finest male specimen in a suit riding a big ass golden motorbike, declares Himself as Krishna Vasudev Yadav from Gokul, and when He gives the protagonist “Bhagavad Gita as It Is” to catch up on actual knowledge of God. Here’s a cropped screenshot BG and the picture of Bhagavad Gita As It IS from BBT India website: Bhagavad Gita As It IS There’s nothing linking the movie with ISKCON or Srila Prabhupada, it’s not one of “our” PR projects, and there are other gods mentioned as worshipable deities, too, but in the end this is an unquantifiable win for Krishna consciousness – I believe it is only through our efforts that default name of Bhagavan is selected as Krishna and the default selected Bhagavad Gita is Srila Prabhupada’s translation. I was wondering how they would choose Bhagavan among various candidates – Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Ram etc, and there was some impersonalist contamination thrown in, too, but I was surely glad that the producers settled on Krishna Himself. There was also some “service to humanity” as the highest form of sacrifice but hey, even in some of our ISKCON centers that seems to be the acceptable nowadays. All in all, this movie shows that our efforts of spreading Krishna consciousness in India are starting to pay off. Those Russian Orthodox Christians who insist that ISKCON is just a marginal American sect are proven to be dead wrong once again. I don’t know if they have ever heard of this movie, maybe Russian devotees had, and put a word to spread a good news. Maybe they need some help. Tomorrow I’ll get on it if I have the time. Another interesting aspect of this movie is that at one time Krishna, after offering so much help, completely abandons the protagonist when he declares that God still doesn’t exist. Maybe this is what happens to many of us, too – Krishna offers Himself to us but we keep making all the wrong choices in our lives and so Krishna disappears. The protagonist went into a coma, we might go under the spell of maya, the protagonist became famous, we might get successful careers, it’s still the punishment, and Krishna is still very upset with us. Not to lose hope – in the end they made up. Maybe we will come to our senses, too. All in all – not the worst way to spend two hours of you life.