ISKCON Sandwhich

It is widely accepted that the most exalted part of Krishna lila are the five chapters about rasa lila. Sometimes Bhramara Gita added, too, and maybe the meeting at Kurukshetra. However, for most of us these topics are mostly of academic interest. For some this academic interest is genuine. Others indulge in them because they believe they should be a part of their sadhana, and yet others discuss these topics because they want only the best for themselves.

If I were to pick pastimes best suited to our own situations I would take one from near the beginning of the Tenth Canto and the other near the end.

First story goes like this – Krishna once sent a messenger to engage conditioned souls in His service. First the messenger addressed the leaders of the society but his call was ignored and unappreciated. Then he addressed their dependents and, surprisingly, they got very enthusiastic and genuinely wanted to help. Not only that but they also decided to dedicate their entire lives to Krishna’s service and, above and beyond what they were asked, they actually went to Krishna’s place and personally submitted their pleas to be with Him forever and ever.

Practically, however, it was impossible as they were born into bodies unsuitable for serving Him directly, and so they were turned away. They were told to go back home, resume their duties as members of the society, and purify their consciousness by constantly remembering the Lord, worshiping His deity, and chanting His names. It just wouldn’t look good for them to be in direct contact with the Lord in their current state. This was actually the message delivered to them from the start – dedicate this one life to Krishna’s service and at the end of it you will get His association.

Mostly, this is what had happened but not all of these devotees were meant to follow this order. Some of them gave up their lives before they could be reintegrated into society or before this reintegration has become a norm. They got reunited with Krishna before going through that dangerous process as their love for Him was already sufficiently developed.

The rest returned to their families and, just as Krishna promised, they were accepted back despite their bold declarations and previous goodbyes. Whether they manage to develop genuine love for Krishna and attain His association at the end remains to be seen, sometimes it looks doubtful, sometimes sure, and sometimes they don’t even think about it anymore.

The second story is about a subset of this group. Well, not exactly but it’s still about devotees who had had Krishna’s association before, always remembered these moments fondly, but who then went on to build their own lives, hoping to succeed in the end. These devotees attained Krishna’s special mercy, and the special part of it is that Krishna ruined all their chances at material success and took away everything they hoped to have.

They have not become productive members of society, they have not set examples for everyone to follow, no one remembers their names and hardly anyone keeps their association. If they are remembered at all it’s often as examples of how devotees should NOT manage their lives. Their life stories are used to teach importance of developing valuable skills to survive and prosper in the outside world, they are used to illustrate importance of looking after one’s health, they are used to illustrate importance of planning for the future, as a person in sattva guna should do.

Not only they ruined their own lives but they also subjected their wives to lifelong, soul crashing poverty as well. It’s either that or they had to be divorced as hopeless cases not ready for actual family lives. In Bhagavatam pastime the wife remained chaste, of course, and even she is not the hero of the story her situation and her devotion needs to be noted. She was caught in the life of inescapable poverty but she was determined in seeing it through no matter what, but even then she knew she still had unfulfilled material desires and she knew that these faults in her devotion could be purified only by Krishna.

She had a choice – keep suffering and hope it goes away on its own, or come to the Lord and admit her weakness, but even that not personally but through her husband. She chose to approach the Lord for help to the alternative of suffering in silence. When commenting on this story our acharyas spare no words in describing her pitiful condition. He body was emaciated and her face dried up. She didn’t have a nice sari to put on, she had to wear an old one where threads were falling apart and colors washed away long time ago. When she requested her husband to seek help from Krishna her voice trembled – not from excitement or gravity of the situation but from being weak and exhausted by constant hunger. She had to beg her husband to accept her choice many many times before he finally conceded and agreed to seek help.

Not only that, but when her husband was about to leave he asked her if she had any gifts to bring to the Lord. An ordinary woman would retort that he was the one supplying their necessities of life and he should be well aware that they have nothing, but she was not an ordinary woman. She accepted that it was her responsibility to manage their household and if there was a need to produce a gift it was her job to find a suitable item from whatever was available. But in this case there literally was nothing so she went to beg flat rice from her neighbors. “Flat rice” was the cheapest kind of food at the time and, to collect sufficient quantity, she had to beg from people leaving on all four sides of their house. Luckily, each one gave something and so she collected four morsels, barely enough to qualify as an offering. She didn’t have anything to nicely package it either so she found a strip of cloth even older than her sari and tied this rice inside.

You know how the story ends, but let me pause it right here. What I wanted to say that most of our ISKCON today is sandwiched between these two categories of devotees – those who couldn’t stand coming back to material lives and those who have been blessed by Krishna to fail in their material lives completely. Both of these were successful but our fate is unclear as we are neither here no there. Or rather were were given two chances to succeed already but we didn’t use them. Will there be another? Or will we have to rot here until we become ready to accept that second choice of dire poverty for Krishna?

I think we will get unlimited number of chances but they all will ask the same question – are you ready to undergo untold suffering yet? No – get another life. Yes – the world at this point is ripe with opportunities for suffering, there can always be something foiund just for us and we can apply ourselves immediately.

Or we can always give up altogether and settle for what we call “liberation”. Krishna gives it very easily, they say, but bhakti is “sudurlabha” – very difficult to attain. Our acharyas explain in this regard that it’s bhava bhakti that is sudurlabha, not the sadhana bhakti we all practice now. This sadhana can earn us liberation but not actual bhakti. This means we can get whatever we want but Krishna won’t pay us any personal attention beyond what is required by etiquette (in case we end up living on the same planet, for example).

We often say “give bhakti” or “give bhava” but I don’t think it’s actually like that – it is not a thing to be given but rather a relationship we are invited to enter into and “bhava” is a necessary component of this relationship. It’s not like “Okay, I’ve got bhava, let me go find Krishna and see if we can do something about it.”

In that second Bhagavatam story there’s is a verse spoken by Maharaja Parikshit where he rhetorically asks how could anyone not appreciate stories about Krishna. Our acharyas didn’t take it so rhetorically, however, and, in unison, commented that it actually happens very often – many people hear the stories but it doesn’t affect them and they do not develop taste for hearing more. There are at least two other Bhagavatam verses mentioning the same – Krishna katha doesn’t work on everyone. Those verses talked about what disqualifies people but in this case the acharyas point out the qualifying condition and it’s in the verse itself – “viśeṣa — the essence (of life); jñaḥ — who knows”.

In other words, it’s not enough to simply like Krishna’s stories – because likes and dislikes are temporary and depend on the prevailing gunas, but one must discover the essence of life and then appreciation for Krishna lila will become permanent and ever growing – because His lilas ARE the essence of life, if we look for it thoroughly. This means that we should see Krishna not as a handsome boy who lived five thousand years ago in Vrindavan (or maybe even a boy who still lives in Vrindavan but is invisible), but as the essence of our lives right now, wherever we are.

This is why I chose these two Bhagavatam stories – they are easily relatable and one can find this all-attractive Absolute Truth in what is happening to us right here right now. If, while searching and reflecting on it it happens to have a form of a bluish boy with a flute – great, this means we are getting somewhere. I think it’s a better way than studying rasa lila because it’s the best or because it promises to relieve us from lust. I believe there are other stories we can easily relate to personally, too, but today I chose these two. And it’s also a sad fact of life that we/I have been sandwiched in some transitionary state where we are neither here nor there and the outcome is uncertain.


Vanity thought #205. When – Sanmodana Bhashyam 6.

It’s been a while since my last post on Sanmodana Bhashyam commentary on Siksashtaka, almost a month, so “when” is the appropriate question to ask in every respect.

To be honest, I was waiting for some sort of realization or maturity that would allow me to move on to this verse, sort of “ready to start the next lesson” feeling. It never came.

It is a good idea to progress from one verse to the next along with progress in one’s spiritual life. For this reason I’m not reading, much less commenting, on books describing confidential pastimes of Radha and Krishna. Siksashtaka, however, is meant for the benefit of every devotee, no matter how retarded. I was going to type “no matter how advanced” but who worries about advanced devotees here, it’s the retarded ones like me that need encouragement to study and speculate on Siksashtaka in depth.

My personal speculation is that the mula, the root word of this verse is kada, when. This is the word that sets the mood of the whole prayer.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur describes all the topics that have been already covered prior to this verse – shraddha, sadhu sanga, nine methods of executing devotional service, the science of self-realization etc. Now it’s time to talk about fruit of all these efforts – development of bhava. Pardon me for not making distinctions between rati, ruci, bhava and prema here, it’s all the same thing to me.

Whichever one of those develops first, the rest are sure to follow and none of them manifests to me at the moment so they are all equally alien and all equally obtainable at the same time. Get one, get three free.

Bhaktivinoda Thakura is deadly serious, though, all these stages are real and each one of them is elaborately described, if not in Sanmodana Bhashyam then elsewhere, so we have every right to study them and expect their appearance, too. This is what should happen, if we don’t believe it we are wasting our time and fooling ourselves.

I bet every devotee eagerly awaits for these symptoms to manifest, and sooner rather than later. I believe this is the kind of spiritual thirst that is entirely excusable.

The reality, however, is that despite all our efforts our sadhana-bhakti does not bring the desired results, and that can be off-putting for many.

Well, this is completely natural, too, as natural as developing the symptoms, and, unlike the tears or chocking voice this stage is easily obtainable. I mean lamenting the lack of progress.

I mean the entire verse is admitting failure to develop bhava, isn’t it? Lord Chaitanya knows what is supposed to happen, He knows what to expect, He, supposedly, have been practicing. He admitted His fallen condition, nanuragah, lack of taste for the Holy Name, He supposedly practiced kirtaniyah sada Harih in a proper mood of humility and tolerance, He renounced all material goals and attraction, He declared His eternal position as a fallen servant. He’s done everything right, yet the symptoms of bhava still do no manifest in His body. That’s exactly what He saying here.

I can relate to that. Everybody can relate to that. That is what devotee should be expecting from himself – sincerely lamenting the lack of progress. Many, including me, are expecting goozebumps and unrestrained flood of tears but this is just wrong – what happens next is that we experience acute realization that we are not getting anything.

So it’s all going according to the plan, just not THAT plan. I’m doing okay, I guess, except that the feeling of lamentation is not acute enough for me. Out of foolishness, pride or ignorance I was following a different plan all these years, it took me re-reading this verse for an umpteenth time to realize I was expecting the wrong things, wrong symptoms.

There are still two more verses to go in Siksashtaka and I will probably discover some new meanings or angles but I’m pretty sure there’s no verse there that says “Look, I got goosebumps! I got goosebumps!”

Yet Bhaktivinoda Thakura assures us that goosebumps are real, and so is prolonged yawning, hiccuping and drooling, among other things. Just think of it – who could possibly imagine these symptoms? Prolonged yawning? Tears, laughter, even body spasms and rolling on the ground – maybe, but yawning? Someone surely must have observed and documented it, and made sure this is the symptom of a real bhava before putting it on the list.

What about the devotee who actually experienced it and was the subject of the study? Did he ever say “Siksashtaka? Kiddy stuff for total neophites, I’ve been yawning and drooling whole morning while they can’t even shed a proper tear in those verses.”

Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati in his comment sternly warns about any artificial displays, these symptoms are not for those who have not yet cleansed their hearts of all anarthas. They are not for those who have naturally moist eyes either.

These symptoms can’t be evoked at will. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati uses the words “obsequiously obedient” to describe a devotee who manifests these symptoms. “Obsequiously obedient to the eternal ecstasies that constantly ply within the heart.” These symptoms themselves command the mind and body, not the other way around.

I suppose one can’t objectively analyse and dissect them and record their appearance and disappearance. One might not even realize that they are happening at all.

If one is eager to achieve them then one should certainly heed Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s advice – artificial imitation is creating gigantic obstacles on the path to pure devotional service.

Personally, I follow Srila Prabhupada’s method when I feel something is up – chant more vigorously, it will go away.

Personally, I think I answered the “when” question for myself – never. The entrance of rati/ruci/prema/bhava is not caused by following sadhana bhakti alone but it surely is not happening for a slacker like me. I have way too many deficiencies in my personal practice that my just and generous reward would be only to practice better, not yawning or drooling.

I can’t possibly expect to progress further than my far more dedicated peers who execute their assigned service flawlessly and earn appreciation of their gurus and other vaishnavas and surely the mercy of Lord Chaitanya Himself for their tireless preaching efforts. Honestly, at most I should only expect to become somewhat resembling them in my life, and I haven’t even got time for that – my youth is gone, my energy, my enthusiasm are not what they used to be. I just don’t have time to catch up.

I’m yawning alright, btw, it’s time to sleep.

I will settle on this – it’s not the symptoms of bhava that I should be chasing, it’s sincere sorrow and remorse at my lack of progress.

Vanity thought #196. Contagiosity.

There’s another aspect of illusion I forgot to add yesterday even if it was in my plans. From Krishna comes both remembrance and forgetfulness but it appears they may alternate on the same topic.

Anyway, it’s easy to understand why we may get attracted to chocolate, for example. Taste buds’ experience is unforgettable, we want to relish it again and again.

With chocolate there’s also the issue of chemicals, not just taste. There are all kinds of things in there, especially in cocoa solids which are abundantly present in dark chocolate. The exact nature and extent of their influence is still not determined but it’s likened by some to effects of marijuana, for example.

A few years ago there was a news item about chocolate producing deeper and longer lasting effects than kissing. They said the whole brain lights up when chocolate melts in your mouth. Theobromine, one of the main chemicals producing elevated mood effect is similar to caffeine and, curiously, is poisonous to dogs. Dogs can’t metabolize it and can literally die. Chocolate is also prohibited in horse racing.

Leaving these psychotropic effects aside it’s easy to understand and even experience the attraction if one tries. It’s easy to understand why one might want to try it again or even become a chocoholic.

It’s also easy to understand why one might want to miss his loved ones when being away. Love for children, for example, doesn’t need explanation. In fact it does need an explanation because one is particularly attracted to one’s own offspring and not children in general, this doesn’t happen with chocolate, but that is the topic for another day.

Contagiosity is when this kind of feelings experienced by others forms attraction in ourselves, too. That doesn’t work with children at all, by the way. Contagiosity can be better observed when we are hunting not for the objects of sense gratification per se but for the emotions that accompany enjoying them. When it really doesn’t matter what we enjoy and we don’t follow any objective criteria for selecting the stimulants, we are going for the rush itself.

Sometimes we remember the rush we had experienced before, like with visiting fun parks we enjoyed when we were kids or reminiscing about old summer camps but most often we want to be infected by this rush from other people.

Put a normal person in a queue of Apple fans on their sleepover before the launch of a new Apple store just a half kilometer away from the existing one, and the enthusiasm will start to rub off even if the intelligence would scream that this is the stupidest idea ever.

Their enthusiasm is contagious. People can fight it but they can’t deny they feel its power, too. It’s like putting a man and a woman together, they will develop attraction sooner or later regardless of their marital status.

The most intriguing part of this contagiosity is, well, contagiosity itself.

It’s a perfectly normal idea if you consider it from the normal, conditioned soul POV. Our, vedic knowledge of how the world works is not so clear. We know about the soul and twenty five material elements but it doesn’t mention interaction between other souls and their own material coverings at all.

How is that we get attracted by other people’s feelings? What is the connection? Through what channels do we share our emotions?

Normal people also realize that this kind of emotional empathy happens on a higher, deeper levels than just eating and mating. It looks like it happens on the level of the mind, bypassing our own senses altogether. The mind comes up with a proposal it borrowed from other people’s minds, often without any personal experience.

There are many examples of the herd mentality exhibited by the crowd. Quite often the majority of participants in a mob haven’g got a clue about the actual reason. When they find out some end up disappointed, some satisfied.

When Krishna entered Mathura no one knew Him personally yet the whole city came out to see Him and everybody saw Him in a different light. This is an example of crowd mechanics working even if directed to God, Krishna.

The practical implications are boringly trivial but extremely important – we have to be very very careful with our association. Whether we like it or not but other people’s attachments are contagious. We can fight them but we can’t deny their power to corrupt our own minds, nobody’s immune.

We have to accept the right to existence of non-devotees around us just like we have to accept our own material urges. As long as we are in these bodies they will follow us everywhere and on every stage of our progress.

The only thing we can do is to manage them wisely.

Or I could offer another explanation – the capacity of other people’s attachments to be transferred to us and vice versa is the proof that there’s only one bhava, one material existence for everybody. We see ourselves as separate and unique but in reality our bodies are parts of the same giant jigsaw. Just like the molecules of water – each one of them doesn’t make water on its own, they exist as water only when they are together, in the same container and in the appropriate temperature band.

Similarly, thinking in terms of “I will do that and then he will do another thing and then I will respond in this way and then” is an illusion. We don’t exist as separate beings with separate wills and wits. Our bodies are all meshed up together, emotions rising in one heart are inseparable from emotions rising in another, and we can fight them only because we receive the power to do so from someone else.

Everything I’m thinking and typing now is dictated by what happened to many people long time ago, from the language I learned at school to the ability to organize my thoughts to the existence of the internet. There’s no originality or uniqueness in my actions, they are unique only in the sense that every atomic particle in this creation is unique in its current position in space in time. Otherwise my body is no more special than the computer I use and my fingers are no more special than the keyboard. One wouldn’t exist without another.

They are bound by the same law of cause and effect, we see one following the other only because we are bound by time. If time was not the factor it would be possible to rewind the world and observe how letters appearing on this screen caused me going to school many many years ago.

From this POV there’s no such thing as conagiosity as there are no separate objects to transfer anything between them, there’s only one bhava, one ocean, one blazing fire of one material existence for all of us.

It’s not how I usually see things because I’m in the conditioned state but I’m hoping one day I will. Right now I still put too much concern into illusionary interactions of this world, worrying about this and that. No time to think about Krishna.

By an unfortunate collusion of circumstances I haven’t chanted my rounds today yet. I’m waiting until everyone’s asleep and I can finally have an hour and a half for myself, or rather for Krishna, as I don’t really exist the way I imagine it.