Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Nama-Aparadha

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.

Srila Prabhupadera Goloka-vani 3.155

The Theory of Respect

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?

Pilgrim’s Diary 11. Resonance

We have completed a set of events on Pilgrim’s journey, he got his books back and said good-bye to police captain, but the underlying theme of his odyssey continues as a phase of a larger cycle. The captain challenged him about the power of the the prayer as opposed to the power of reading the Gospels and the pilgrim said they were equal, and yet he was representing praying as a method that works. At the same time he was reunited with the books so he was excited about reading. Next stage on his journey will continue these topics and it shows how these two activities resonate with each other, how they amplify each other, feeding off and stimulating each other in turn.

There will be significant ground to cover in this installment and I think it will need at least two appendices dealing with two lists that pack quite a lot separately.

The pilgrim walked fifty miles along the main road but then decided to try something else. Too much traffic, I guess, so he turned off into a country road where villages were far and few and between. His MO was to read Philokalia during the day, taking shelter of a big tree, and walk at night. He loved that book and learned a lot from it, his only concern was that he didn’t have a place to sit down and immerse in it completely. The book was encouraging him to chant his prayer and the prayer was drawing him to study what the book teaches about it.

He read the Bible, too, and he realized that Philokalia was the key to unlocking Bible’s treasures, he discovered that the Bible was full of hidden meanings and Philokalia was uncovering them for him. Here is a list of his discoveries taken from English translation of the diary: “the inner secret man of the heart,” “true prayer worships in the spirit,” “the kingdom is within us,” “the intercession of the Holy Spirit with groanings that cannot be uttered,” “abide in me,” “give me thy heart,” “to put on Christ,” “the betrothal of the Spirit to our hearts,” the cry from the depths of the heart, “Abba, Father,” and so on.” I think this deserves unpacking separately.

With these realizations his praying evolved to a whole new level. As the prayer was flowing from his heart he started seeing everything surrounding him as “delightful and marvelous” – trees, grass, birds, earth, air, daylight – everything was telling him that it exists and is shown to him as a demonstration of God’s love for humanity and that everything he sees feels grateful to the Lord and glorifies Him in return. When the pilgrim saw it he understood what the books mean about knowing the language of animals and he understood what it means to know the speech of all creatures. This needs unpacking, too, but I wouldn’t even know where to start because this has to be experienced, it has to be seen. As far as people report – you don’t actually talk to trees and animals, it’s not a verbal communication, but you understand why they behave in a certain way, you can reply to this understanding on exactly the same level it came to you, and they will get it and respond accordingly. Conversations like this can be translated into words but only if a third party asks, otherwise words are not necessary. This vision, this realization is related to seeing the root of every creature’s existence, their raison d’etre, and responding to it with great respect and appreciation. I don’t have much experience in this regard and can point to people in popular culture saying things like “he sees me” or asking “Do you feel me?” These expressions refer to the same deep understanding of another person’s reason for existence, that’s where they came from before they got trivialized by the public and entered into Urban Dictionary.

Speaking of the public – I’ve never seen this kind of vision attained when observing human society while it’s been very common when observing the nature. Something about what we, people, do feels unnatural and disconnected. Maybe it’s all our garbage and highways and everything, or maybe it’s due to our inability to distance ourselves, which is necessary for becoming observers. Or maybe it would need a high level of spiritual realization, way above our current level. It works with animals and trees because humans are already higher than them so no extra effort is necessary. Moving on.

After some time the pilgrim reached a very remote region and didn’t see a single village for three days. He ran out of his dried bread and started to worry about food. He, however, dispelled this uneasiness by turning his heart to his prayer again. There is this joy in surrendering to God’s will that doesn’t leave any space for unhappiness even if the reasons still seem to be perfectly valid. I don’t remember where I’ve seen this recently, probably in some commentary on something, but even if the state of being hopeful drives away all fears, real peace comes only with absolute hopelessness. Just leave it to the Lord and simply be with Him. Worries come only in relation to the events of this world. Forget about it and just be with God. That’s where the real peace is. In our lingo this state is called “akincana”. In this term “kin” is from the beginning of question words – what, where, who, etc, and “a-kin” makes it to mean “no questions” to be placed to the world, nothing to ask for or about, which means one doesn’t expect any answers, which means one doesn’t entertain any hopes.

If this looks like a pretty high level of advancement – no, sorry, it’s only the first step in vaishnavism. Queen Kunti in the First Canto uses the state “akincana” as a prerequisite to chanting the pure name, stating that it won’t happen otherwise. This state is elusive, unfortunately, as we all can attest to the unfailing ability of things like good food to fill us with hopes. Happens all the time, doesn’t it? When you smell it you hope for a good meal, with your first bite you hope for satiation, and when you ingest it you feel an influx of energy and confidence, ie your hopes are rising up.

The pilgrim was walking along a huge forest and suddenly he saw a very friendly dog running out of it. Friendly dogs mean friendly owners and the pilgrim followed the dog into the forest where he was met by a skinny, pale middle aged man. They asked introductory questions and immediately took liking of each other. The man was living in something translated as a dugout (“mud hut” is used in the above linked translation but it’s not a hut). It’s basically a hole in the ground, something like a trench, with a roof over it. The man said he was a forest ranger watching after the timber. The pilgrim said he was jealous of this life – alone, in the solitude, not having to mix with all kinds of people on the road. The man replied that there is another dugout nearby and the pilgrim was welcome to use it. Villagers bring bread once a week so they will be set for food, and the only problem is that later in the fall two hundred guys will descent on this forest to fell all the trees and their watching job will be over. “Works for me,” replied the pilgrim, and so a new phase of his journey started.

It should be noted that they both considered living only on bread to be totally sufficient. The fact that the man was described as skinny and pale doesn’t say much in favor of this diet but he had also lived like this for ten years and was not going to die anytime soon, which is also saying something. The pilgrim was very happy with this turn of events and he gratefully noted that the Lord fulfilled his desire for solitude. He also noted that there were four months left before late autumn when loggers were supposed to come, which means it was August and he was only two-three months into his journey and no more than two months since he started chanting. Quite a progress.

Guys exchanged their life stories and it turned out that the man was a village artisan, doing all kinds of skillful things for the public, but he also had a fair share of vices. He wasn’t an alcoholic like police captain but he loved to get into fights and insult people. Village deacon had a very old book about Last Judgement and he would go from house to house reading from it for money. For ten cents he would read it until morning while people would go about their chores, and so the man got to hear these stories, too, and started thinking about his sins and his future. He realized that he stood no chance and that he needed to atone for his sins. He sold his business, his house, and moved into the forest where he had lived for ten years already. He got paid in bread and candles, which he used for his altar. He would get up before sunrise and pay obeisances and pray, he would eat only once a day and, when walking around looking after the forest, he would wear sixty pound chains on his body, and not the golden chains either – it was not to show off but a voluntary austerity meant to atone for sins.

He said he liked this life at first but then thoughts about women and stuff started creeping in, leaving him confused. He hoped to atone for his previous sins but wasn’t sure he was saved from the new ones, and he wasn’t sure the Book was telling the truth either. He then gave a list of common doubts regarding Christian doctrine – how dead people are supposed to rise up? Who knows for sure that hell exists? What if it was written by popes only to scare ordinary people into obedience? What if austerities of a righteous life are all for nothing and there is no heaven waiting ahead? Why should people restrict their joy now if there is no certainly about joy in the afterlife? Is he wasting his life living in a forest? Wouldn’t it be better to return to the village and restart his professional career? Yeah, he had a lot of time to think about these things and this also tells us that he was also a neophyte on his spiritual journey.

Previously I described the police captain as a neophyte on the basis of doubts in his own chosen path and it was not very fair. This guy was a lot more doubtful than the captain but I would still insist there is progression between these two cases. Police captain was a karmi and this forest guy was a jnani. Police captain relied on religion for his enjoyment and this guy relied on it for liberation from suffering. It’s not the language Christians use and there is no hint of this progression from one case to the next in the diary but once you see it can’t be unseen.

Pilgrim’s reaction to these doubts was rather mature. He was amused that even simple folk, not just the urbanites, can grow into “freethinkers”. Nope, concluded the pilgrim – dark forces have equal access to everyone and simple people are probably even an easier prey. The solution was obviously to fight against doubts with the sword of the Scripture, so he took out his Philokalia and read out a passage by St. Hesychios saying that restriction of the senses does not bring results if not accompanied by directing one’s mind towards God. Atonement of sins is not nearly enough without cleansing the heart and the mind. The pilgrim explained that even if one decides to turn his heart to God but is still driven by fear of punishment then it’s no more than a business transaction and only unalloyed surrender is the way. It’s like he was reading from Srila Prabhupada (that St Hesychios’ passage is less clear, however). He similarly recommended chanting of the Holy Name as the only reliable means of self-realization. The Holy Name will not only guard one against temptations but it will fill one’s heart with genuine love of God, which is the real goal of human life. He also gave instructions on chanting, the man accepted his reasoning, and become peaceful.

Having sorted this out the pilgrim went to his dugout and suddenly it felt like being in God’s own palace for him – because what he treasured most at that moment was solitude and the company of Philokalia, and now it was provided over and above. He read the entire book, from start to finish, and he marveled at the depth and breadth of these topics. The only problem was that with so much to know and appreciate he wasn’t sure how to keep the thread of instructions on chanting, which was what was most important to him. He really wanted to find the secret to unceasing and self-manifested prayer in the heart. This is probably the first time the prayer was called “self-manifested” or “self-chanting”. He had remembered two instructions from the Bible telling him not to give up his quest for seemingly unattainable, otherwise known as “hunting for the rhino” in our parlay, so he was determined to find the answers.

Since he had chosen to be alone and books were of no help here he had no choice but to turn to the Holy Name for guidance. He gave himself completely to it and didn’t do anything whole day but chant, hoping that the Lord might respond to his inquiry. Then he fell asleep and in his dream he saw his spiritual master, the one who first told him about chanting and about Philokalia (he died in episode 6). The pilgrim was in guru’s ashram, like in the old days (less than a month ago), and the guru was telling him about glories of Philokalia, how it is a treasure chest of spiritual secrets but at the same time contains simple things for simple people, too. He said that for those who are not very wise it’s not recommended to read the whole book from cover to cover but look only at the chapters suitable for their level of development, so those seeking instructions on unceasing prayer should read Philokalia in the following order, copy-pasting from English translation again:

“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, Simeon the new theologian on the three forms of prayer and his discourse on faith, and after that the book of Callistus and Ignatius.”

That’s another list that needs to be dealt with separately. I’ve located some of these already and the only thing left is to actually read them, should be done in about an hour. Ha ha, I don’t think a week would be enough, but this stuff is interesting and it forms the background to pilgrim’s next realization so I don’t want to skip it and I want to stay on the same page, quite literally here.

The guru then added that after this one should read the prayers of the holy Callistus but the pilgrim couldn’t find it in the book. He then asked the guru for help and the guru quickly flipped a few pages and located it easily. “Here,” he said, “I’ll even underline it for you,” and he took a piece of a charcoal and put a mark in the book. When I grew up it was unthinkable to mark books this way but this was a personal copy and these people weren’t very cultured by today’s standards (says more about our standards than about real culture). Instructions on reading continued and broke off only when the pilgrim woke up. It was still dark out and he tried to memorize guru’s instructions while they were still fresh in his memory. He also pondered whether it was a ghost or the soul of the actual guru, or maybe just a dream. Thinking about options and explanations he got up and noticed that his Philokalia was on the table instead of under the pillow, and that it was opened, and then he found that the passage from his dream was actually underlined with a piece of charcoal lying nearby. This confirmed to the pilgrim that it wasn’t a dream but a real visit from his guru, made possible by the mercy of the Holy Name.

He then read the assigned passages, then read them again, and he felt the urge to try their advice in real life. This means that by the mercy of the Holy Name he got access to necessary passages in Philokalia and then, in turn, Philokalia implored him to chant. The book gave him sambandha – what is this inner prayer, how it pleases the heart, and how to distinguish this pleasure from the weeds of bhakti, which can sometimes appear indistinguishable.

The pilgrim started with locating his heart, as was advised by Simeon the New Theologian. One has to close his eyes and direct his mind to it. It’s a process of visualization and I normally don’t put much value on it, but I’ve seen it being practiced elsewhere so I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand. It’s not something we learn from Srila Prabhupada, which is a rather damning label by itself. Should I try it myself? Not sure about that. Anyway, the pilgrim tried this several times a day for half an hour each and for the first few days he saw nothing. I guess it’s easy to imagine one’s heart but to actually see it with the mind is a different thing and, by pilgrim’s account, it requires a significant amount of practice.

After he started sensing his heart and sensing its movement, the heartbeat, he started placing Jesus Prayer inside it, as was instructed by Gregory of Sinai, Callistus, and Ignatius. I really need to check their writings out. This was also synced with breathing – on the inhale he said first part of the prayer and on the exhale completed it with “have mercy on me”. This he had practiced for an hour at first, then for two hours, and if he felt tired or lazy he would open Philokalia and restore his confidence again. After three weeks of practice (should I still try it!?!) he started feeling pain in his heart which was then replaced by delightful warmth, consolation, and peace. This encouraged him to chant even more and as he directed more energy and efforts to chanting he started feeling great joy. Sometimes he would feel his heart bubbling with exultation, sometimes he would feel lightness and freedom in his heart, sometimes he would feel love towards Jesus and to the entire creation, too. Sometimes tears would flow from his eyes, sometimes he would feel gratefulness for the mercy shown to an insignificant person like himself. Sometimes he would have great insights in the words of the scripture and sometimes what was complicated and misunderstood appeared simple and clear as day. Sometimes the warmth from his heart would spread all over his body and he would feel Lord’s presence everywhere. Sometimes simply calling Lord’s name filled him with untold joy, and he started to realize Lord’s words that kingdom of God is within us.

From these experiences he noticed that inner prayer brings results in three ways – in the soul, in the mind, and in intelligence. In Christian language it’s in the spirit, in the feelings, and in revelations. “Revelations” here means realizations, attaining knowledge, and therefore I think it’s justified to equate it with intelligence, buddhi. He then gives examples of these three kinds of realizations but I don’t think it’s necessary to translate them all. The ability to understand animals was classified as “revelation”, for example, sweetness of love of God as “spirit”, warmth in the entire body as “feelings” and so on. It’s a lot of stuff we don’t experience right now so listing it and sorting it out correctly doesn’t seem like a useful endeavor.

Five months into the practice of praying (two months before he got to his dugout plus three months according to instructions from Philokalia) he got so used to the prayer that he did so without interruptions and then finally he felt that the prayer got a life of its own, that it didn’t require his conscious efforts anymore, it flowed entirely by itself, and it did so in the heart even when he was sleeping.

We will leave the story at this point, just before the loggers came and a new chapter started. All I can say that in five months he achieved that which might not be attainable for me in my entire life. With this success in mind it’s hard to dismiss his method of visualizing the heart and placing the prayer inside it. On the other hand, it’s not what Srila Prabhupada taught us and so some reconciliation is necessary. It’s like manasika japa – I know some devotees swear by it but there is no way I’d replace any of my sixteen rounds with it. I’m open to trying it on top of sixteen but so far I haven’t noticed anything unusual about it. Maybe need to try more. The pilgrim didn’t notice anything at first, too, so it might require weeks of concentrated work, plus he was living in the forest with minimum distractions. This one episode with Lokanatha Swami threw me off balance for a week, what to speak of taking in some mundane news, like a war in Israel or Belarus grounding a plane. If we let our minds to indulge in these things we can forget about unceasing, self-generating prayer in the heart. Of this I’m confident. Nevertheless, it still shows the ideal conditions for chanting and it gives hope and encouragement to try it, so why not? What was that about hunting the rhinos?

I’m still in two minds about this. Maybe I should read those instructions in Philokalia first, and I have another source for “meditations” like the one described above. I should probably try those, too – visualizing things, controlling the mind in a sense of directing it to certain locations in space. What kind of space is that? Special kind of mind space? There is so much to know about these things, and there is also “simply chanting is enough”. So I’ll leave it at that.

Pilgrim’s Diary 8. On the Road

We left the pilgrim at the end of the summer with his guru suddenly leaving this mortal world. The pilgrim used money earned for guarding fields all summer to buy a copy of Philokalia and went on the road again. This is where his second story begins, though it’s not marked in English translation.

His Jesus Prayer became his constant companion, it traveled with him, comforted him, consoled him, warmed him – they had built a relationship. This should not be very difficult for us either but there are obvious conditions – traveling means detachment from people and places. You meet someone, you see something, and you move on. Things, people, and words come into your view and disappear, you don’t create any bonds with them, just watch them come and go, even though in normal thinking it’s YOU who are traveling. In these ever changing circumstances the pilgrim had only one steady association – with his prayer. From the point of view of this relationship they stayed in one place and everything else traveled past them. We can and we should form a similar bond with the Holy Name, we should also find this solid ground where we stay in one place and life flows before our eyes, and eventually we should stop looking – it doesn’t require our attention anyway. We won’t stop the universe by not looking at it.

Next step for the pilgrim was to realize that this flow of people, places, and events is still distracting. He longed for solitude again but it wasn’t available. He divulged something about himself here – his left arm didn’t properly work from his childhood so he couldn’t get a job. This is interesting – if one wants to walk he will be fed as a passing holy man, but if one wants to stay in one place he has to work for his upkeep, and since our pilgrim was handicapped holding a steady job was not so easy – he lived a hundred years before emergence of “service economy”. Work meant working with your hands and hands needed to be strong. Thus the pilgrim chose walking, and he chose to walk east to Irkutsk, some five thousand kilometres away from central Russia, a city near lake Baikal. There was an apparently famous priest living in Irkutsk and the pilgrim didn’t feel the need to explain why he wanted to see him, not at this point in the book anyway. A side note – the name of that priest is interesting for non-Orthodox readers – in English it would be “Innocent” but in Russian this “c” in the middle is hard and the word doesn’t mean anything, it means “innocent” only in English and other Latin based languages but doesn’t evoke ideas of innocence in Russian even though it’s a very popular name.

The idea was to walk through Siberia, which was always sparsely populated, and there would be no distractions on the way. A look ahead – the entire book is dedicated to events of this journey to Irkutsk where the pilgrim met this “Innocent” priest, which was kind of anti-climatic, if you ask me, but that’s where the road had taken the pilgrim, so let’s go along.

He walked and walked and walked and chanted his Jesus prayer (on his beads) and then he noticed that the prayer, entirely by itself, started entering his heart. It was basically one sentence in the book, but there was so much packed into it that I have been thinking for several days about what it means in practice and what it could mean for us.

First of all – it was result of chanting a lot of names, chanting whole day through, without getting involved in anything else. The pilgrim walked, which isn’t an option for most of us, but we CAN find a way to dedicate more time to chanting. These days we often hear that it’s quality, not quantity that matters, that we shouldn’t prematurely take vows to chant more than sixteen rounds, that it should be done only on the orders of the spiritual master and only under his supervision, and so on. Well, this is also as impractical as us walking five thousand miles to Siberia. Our gurus have no time to babysit our chanting, though consulting with them is, of course, necessary. Still, I don’t see how shooting a “Can I chant one lakh a day?” email is appropriate. It’s not something that can be discussed from a distance, it’s something that should come from close heart to heart relationship, and that’s where practicality becomes a problem. I’d say that we should attain this closeness within our hearts ourselves, not necessarily by hanging out with our gurus day and night. There is much to discuss about this but now is not the time. Chanting a lot of Names has to be done, though.

One has to find a way to be close to his guru and start chanting more and, of course, one has to find a way for chanting itself. This can’t be ignored, we can’t move forward and expect the same results without these two steps. The pilgrim felt his prayer entering into his heart after maybe two months. What should be our equivalent? I once saw a quote from Sivarama Swami’s book on japa – one should get a grasp on what he is doing after five-ten years of practice. The idea is that initially the mantra has no meaning to us, it’s just sounds, but after five-ten years these sounds should start to really mean something. We’ll talk about the meaning a bit later but let’s talk numbers first.

If we gave up our jobs and replaced them with chanting we could be chanting about twelve hours a day – eight hours of work plus grooming, commute etc and two hours we chant already – we are in the region of twelve hours. With reasonably fast speed it works out to two lakhs of names, or 2×64=128 rounds. That’s eight times more than what we chant regularly. This means that what Sivarama Swami said could be achieved in five-ten years would be achievable in one year only if we chant two lakhs a day – counting by the number of names we hear. When Sivarama Swami gave this time frame he also meant “for temple devotees”. I believe he based his estimate after observing temple devotees, not “fringies”. He meant devotees who wake up before sunrise, attend mangala arati, chant sixteen rounds before breakfast, attend deity greeting and guru puja, listen to Bhagavatam classes, engage in active service, read our books one or two hours a day, attend evening Gaura arati – you get the picture. My point is that it’s five-ten years of intense sadhana, not five-ten years of working in the office, with internet and movies and all the other trappings of being “normal”. That kind of lifestyle is useless here – useless for spiritual progress of the kind I have in mind. Conversely, when chanting takes one’s entire day then intensity and purity of lifestyle will bring results faster than dictated by the number of rounds alone. In other words, what the pilgrim experienced is doable and is in the realm of possibility if we apply the same method – a lot of chanting with a lot less distractions.

Now about the meaning – in pilgrim’s words he felt like his heart started saying words of the prayer with each beat. Thus, for example: One – “Lord,” Two – “Jesus,” Three – “Christ,” and so on. Once he discovered this ability he stopped chanting orally and started listening to his heart. He felt subtle pain in his heart, similar to how he felt pain in his wrists when he started chanting on rosary, and his thoughts were flooded with love of Jesus. He felt that if he saw Jesus he would have immediately embraced his feet and kissed them with love and devotion. So we have three things here – prayer on the lips, prayer in the heart, and love in one’s mind. I’m not sure how to translate it properly into our experiences.

Sivarama Swami spoke of grasping the meaning of the mantra, though I don’t recall his exact words. The pilgrim had “Lord”, “Jesus” etc and he felt his heart “pronounce” each name distinctively. Let’s say one’s heart beats at the rate of 80 beats a minute. 80=16×5, which means at this rate we would chant 5 sixteen word Hare Krishna mantras in a minute, which means it would take almost half an hour to finish one round. Obviously, it won’t work. Even with two words, like “Hare Krishna” per one beat, it won’t work. We need to chant a bit more than twenty mantras per minute to keep a reasonable tempo and it just doesn’t resonate with heart beats. At least I don’t see the connection.

We can still approach it from the other side – never mind the hear trate, the words should mean something to us in the same way “Lord”, “Jesus”, and “mercy” mean something to Christians. We have been given the basic meaning of Hare Krishna mantra and every now and then our speakers remind us of it, but there is really a lot more to be said on the subject. Most importantly – we should find what these words mean to us. Take “Hare”, for example – it could be an appeal to Hari or it could be an appeal to Radha. Lord Hari snatches away our material attractions and Srimati Radharani engages us in Krishna’s service. These are two different functions and one should find which one has a meaning to him and in what way. Devotees struggling with life in the material world should probably find what Hari can do for them and what He is probably doing already and remember that when chanting. Our mantras should be meaningful, they should be connected to our lives and should be relevant to our stages of progress. There are so many other meanings of Hare Krishna matra, too, so we always can find something that speaks to us. Every word has multiple meanings and their combinations have multiple meanings as well. “Hare Krishna” is not the same as “Hare Rama” and not the same as “Hare Hare”. Even syllables in Hare Krishna mantra can have different meanings.

The point is that there is always something in the mantra that can speak directly to us and we can find it. It’s not a matter of giving book references but a matter of the mantra itself. If we want to know what it means to us it will reveal itself and make itself relevant. We just have to listen. Then we can start pronouncing each syllable with full knowledge and in full connection to the mantra. It will literally become our companion, become our conversation partner. We WILL see the mantra reciprocating with us, though [probably] not in the same way as conversing with other people. Personally, I experience a several day lag between expressing what I want and getting the answers. Like if I feel I want to hear something about a particular topic and then appropriate book or a video or facebook post coming to my attention. I don’t order these things, though, they must be heartfelt inquiries that rise up almost on their own and then get answered. Two-three days is a big delay, one might note, but it’s not how I see it. I rather see it as lots of useless stuff happening in between exchanges in the ongoing discourse. I pay a lot less attention to this stuff than to questions and answers. It’s “two-three days” in human calculation but this conversation is not on the human level.

I guess it could be compared to chess games played by exchanging letters in the old days. You mail your move and wait for reply with your opponent’s move, think about it, send your new move, wait for reply etc. The game can become very exciting, but this excitement should be experienced on game’s time, not on everyday’s time. If you forget the game the excitement goes away but it still exists, you just have to filter out everyday noise and concentrate on the game again. It IS possible to live in such a game but, of course, we are also forced to watch a lot of mundane stuff passing by, too. Forget chess, a very common example is people falling in love and exchanging text messages. They, too, live on a different time, barely noticing what happens to them between their texts.

There is another issue here – articulation. Desire in the heart takes time to manifest itself in the mind and it takes time to come out from the lips and, similarly, the response takes time to propagate from the layers of the universe before it materializes as somebody’s helpful Facebook comment, for example. We are mediating our conversation with God through a slow responding medium of our bodies and our universe, but that’s what we have have and so I don’t complain. This brings me to another aspect – our chanting should resonate with our bodies.

What I mean is that it takes time to say the words and it takes time to feel them. This becomes important when their meanings become distinct. Our minds need time to change their state from requests to thankfulness or to whatever the appropriate meaning should be. This time can be reduced with practice, as evidenced from experienced chanters, but we have to learn it slowly first. It takes time for the mouth, it takes time for the mind, it takes time for intelligence to switch to the meaning of the next mantra, and it takes time for the heart. When we are somehow blessed by circumstances we can find this perfect pattern and perfect tempo and feel the mantra reverberating through our entire bodies, and I don’t mean “head to toe”, I mean it from “heart to tongue”. This goes both ways, too – sometimes we hear the Name and we catch its meaning in the mind and then our heart melts, and sometimes the call rises from the heart and then reverberates through the body until it manifests on the tongue, and we hope the Lord is listening.

In any case, depending on one’s “speed of life”, it needs to take a certain amount of time and we should become sensitive to it. We should not rush the mantra before we can catch what it means and we should not stretch it so that the mind wanders away. It would wander away if we chant fast, too – because it can’t meaningfully distinguish between fast flying words. The idea of chanting audibly was to give the mind something to hear, if you remember, and evolving from hearing to listening is a natural next step.

It’s like a song on a radio – it’s one thing to hear music coming out of it and quite another to actually listen to the song itself, to resonate with its tempo, to appreciate the moves of the tune, and to absorb the meaning of the words. Our Hare Krishna mantra is not that different – there is tempo, there are words, and there could be a tune, too – our voice can rise and fall and we can change tone if we want. We already do it in kirtans, all that is needed is to drastically reduce the amount of “music” and it becomes japa.

Speaking of kirtans – I listen to a lot of Aindra playing in the background and, with time, I noticed how each tune is very personal for him. He is not singing melodies but rather the call from his heart takes shape of a song. Emotion translates to music, which is how music is created anyway. We have to feel something very very deeply to make it into a song, and that’s how most of our common kirtan tunes were born initially, before they were turned into memorized melodies with a lot of embellishments. I especially like it when “Hare Krishna” part produces a new emotion and then “Hare Rama” part is a response of amusement and appreciation. This is a special stage in a tune’s development and I think it’s very precious. Later on in the evolution the distinction disappears and “Hare Rama” part simply mirrors “Hare Krishna” – because we, the general public, do not feel the same way, we simply follow the already known music, we do not discover it, and so we do not react to our discoveries. I’m getting away from the topic, however.

So, one way or another, but the pilgrim observed the mantra entering his heart. He does not elaborate on it at this point and so he presents himself as an observer – the heart chants and the pilgrim listens. How does it work with listening, though? It’s not his ears that hear the prayer of his heart. Perhaps his sense of hearing, the actual sense as a part of his subtle body, not “sense of hearing” in a common usage, so his sense of hearing had, perhaps, detached itself from his ears. We don’t need ears to hear – senses and physical sense organs are different things. This would mean that the pilgrim is gradually moving to a different state of reality – detached from gross matter. Can it happen to us? It probably should, if we did one of the usual kinds of yoga, but since Lord Caitanya invested the “gross” sound of the Holy Name with the power to reveal itself it’s not strictly speaking necessary to detach ourselves from our bodies in order to perceive the Holy Name in all its glory. That’s His very unusual gift, probably never seen before – revealing God’s presence in common articles of matter. Traditionally, things like deities, names, books, and all kinds of sacred objects, were seen as tools and as gateways to divinity, but with Lord Caitanya’s blessings we don’t have to look anywhere else – He brought full power of Divinity right into this world.

I didn’t think much of it before but now I can’t read Pilgrim’s Diary in the same way anymore. First time around I was sure that going inside the heart was THE way but now I realize that if we can’t see Krishna in the audible name outside we won’t see Him inside the heart either. It’s not the location were we look that matters, though chanting in the heart, the way the pilgrim learned, is still a pretty useful skill to have. The pilgrim himself didn’t totally disappear in his internal chanting either and that would be the subject of the next installment in this series. Something very “external” happened to him and we will discuss it next time.

Pilgrim’s Diary 7. Not a Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilgrim’s Diary 5. Nyasa

In Vedic tradition mantras given at initiation are supposed to be “placed” on the body in a ritual called “nyasa”. Good example of that is Narayana Kavaca from the Eighth Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam. The Holy Name, however, is famously exempt from this rule – niyamitah smarane na kalah – no niyama, no rules, no kalah, no consideration of time. Is it equally true for the Jesus Prayer given to the pilgrim? Yes and no – not in the traditional sense.

I think I forgot to mention it last time – unceasing prayer was supposed to be chanted by the tongue, by the mind, and in the heart. So far the instructions were given only for chanting coming from the tongue but the major work is placing the prayer in the mind and, the hardest part – in the heart. It’s not going to happen at once but it is necessary – the prayer must come in touch with these three bodily parts or it would be ineffective. In Narayana Kavaca prayers one is supposed to touch his left knee and right ear so it’s not quite the same, and yet the principle remains – one’s body has to become one with one’s mantra. Narayana Kavaca was meant to protect one’s knees and ears so it had to become one with those bodily parts. Makes sense.

Strictly speaking, this is not required from Hare Krishna mantra which provides direct connection with the Absolute and doesn’t require medium of the body. Of course we can’t chant it without using the body but, with experience, we should realize that the mantra exists entirely by itself. We are not specifically encouraged to “place” it inside our bodies but nobody would object to it either – Krishna is Krishna. Our problem is that we can’t perceive the mantra’s full power and sweetness when it escapes our lips. Maybe it would be better felt in the mind? It should definitely feel better in the heart, right? Not necessarily – Krishna is Krishna, He is independent of any medium, if we can’t see Him in the books or deities then we can’t see Him inside our hearts either. It’s not a mechanical process and it does not depend on our powers of perception, it depends solely on Krishna’s agreement to reveal Himself.

Nevertheless, traditional process of yoga, of connection with the Lord, should not be dismissed. We still have to withdraw our consciousness from the external world and focus it on our hearts, hoping to meet the Lord there. This is how it’s supposed to work – connect with the Lord first, then learn to see Him in the objects of the external world, too. I don’t think Lord Caitanya is supposed to dazzle us with external displays of sankirtana all the time. We have to put our own work in finding Him as well. Of course, when He so obviously demonstrates His external presence, like five hundred years ago in Navadvipa or like fifty years ago in Hare Krishna movement, He can’t be ignored or discounted, but these five hundred years in between were conspicuous by His absence. He presence is not always externally perceptible.

So let’s return to the book. Once again, the goal has been announced – one should chant the Holy Name, in this case Jesus Prayer, always and at all times, inside one’s heart, and even in one’s sleep. The first instruction, however, was much easier. After reading a couple of other unspecified passages the old man explained their meanings and let the disciple to attend predawn Mangala arati. His last instruction was to practice this prayer under his supervision and warned the pilgrim that doing it alone would be troublesome and ineffective.

During Mangala arati the pilgrim felt elated and fervently prayed for further directions. There was no place for him to stay but he heard that there was a village nearby and, by God’s grace, he was able to get a job there guarding someone’s fields through the summer. He got a straw hut to stay and all the time in the world to pray. What a find! He put himself to practice.

First week went fine, he was contemplating his Jesus Prayer from all sides and reflecting on the passages the old man read to him from Philokalia. Then things started to go wrong. He felt heaviness, inertia, boredom, total lack of taste, sleepiness, and simultaneous influx of all kinds of fascinating ideas. He went back to the forest church and told about this to his guru. “It’s normal,” was the reply. “It’s just maya testing you because those who take to chanting the Holy Name are about to escape her grip forever and ever, and she won’t let it go so easily.” Replace “Maya” with “the world of darkness” and you can’t tell vaishnava from a Christian here. The old man also added that even Maya serves at the discretion of the Lord so there is nothing to be really afraid of. This test indicated the need to develop humility and to give up one’s own desires. Unless one’s heart is clean and pure it’s not suitable for the Holy Name to establish itself there. It would lead only to pride. The old man opened Philokalia again and read a passage that I found unexpected:

‘If after a few attempts you do not succeed in reaching the realm of your heart in the way you have been taught, do what I am about to say, and by God’s help you will find what you seek. The faculty of pronouncing words lies in the throat. Reject all other thoughts (you can do this if you will) and allow that faculty to repeat only the following words constantly, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Compel yourself to do it always. If you succeed for a time, then without a doubt your heart also will open to prayer. We know it from experience.’

On second thought – Krishna also said that mind can be conquered by sustained efforts, by one’s willpower. We have also been told to speak nothing else but Hare Krishna mantra. To be honest, I always fail at this. I’m compelled to say so many other things, but I would also admit that avoiding temptations is very important. This instruction was meant for Christian monks and ascetics and I’m sure it would work for “simple living high thinking” vaishnavas, too. The pilgrim lived alone in the forest, on the edge of the field he was guarding, so he had no one to talk to and no TV. In those days cell coverage didn’t reach remote areas yet so there was no mobile internet either. There was no outlet to even charge his phone, if he had one. Electricity had not reached rural Russia yet. My point is that living in today’s world and peace of mind are incompatible, and one has to make concerted efforts to isolate himself from the noise of the world. It has to be done, skillfully, gradually, with humility, with recognition of one’s weakness, but it has to be done. As far as I tried, it really works and mind CAN be brought under control when it is protected from unnecessary stimuli.

In this regard, Christian response to this book made a point that the pilgrim, in his twenties by their calculation, was jumping ahead of himself and that one should go through many many years of practice before one can dedicate himself solely to prayer. Fair enough. Actually, very true, but we all must come to this point anyway. Christians can’t accept that the bulk of this progress could have been done in previous lives and, perhaps, we also have to accept that perfection in our chanting is a multi-lifetime project as well. It helps to understand how the world works, it helps to know what distractions are there and what their roots are so they hold no mystery and don’t provoke curiosity. Curiosity is encouraged in modern population but there must come a stage when one sees it as a distraction. We should realize carvita carvananam principle for ourselves – all the alleged pleasures and treasures of the world are only chewing the chewed. But for that things have to chewed first, too. How else would you recognize them?

This is an uncomfortable point for those devotees who believe in one life ticket back to Godhead. I’m not here to discourage them and I know many who are well on their way towards this goal, but I am also aware of many who are fooling themselves and driven by rather mundane interests in their daily dealings. You can’t be genuinely excited by something you see on the news or something you anticipate in your own life AND hope to return to Krishna. Maybe we can get to fulfill those desires in Krishna’s presence, but it won’t make us into His devotees, it won’t grant us Krishna prema.

I was hoping to finish this part of the story today but there’s too much interesting stuff left. Coming back to the title – so far it’s not so much about placing mantra “on” our bodies but about placing ourselves INTO the mantra. Let the Holy Name take over our lives, let the mind surrender unto it. It’s a very important step that no one can neglect. Mind must become still and peaceful. Not thoughtless, but peaceful. Undisturbed.

Pilgrim’s Diary 4. Initiation

In the previous post we discussed the testing, which means building up sraddha, which leads to diksa. These words do not exist in Christian vocabulary but that’s what they do anyway. The process of gradual spiritual realization is universal, it doesn’t matter how you call the stages or even how you break the stages up. The old man tested pilgrim’s interest in constant praying, the pilgrim tested whether the old man knew what he was talking about or not. Krishna tests whether the devotees are serious about chanting. Only when everybody is satisfied the admittance to the next stage is granted.

If you recall, this testing was done while the old man led the pilgrim to his “desert” – the picture of what it could have looked like is in the previous article. When they arrived it looked like an invitation for the pilgrim to take advantage of the facilities – they had “temple room”, they had “prasadam”, they had company of wise devotees – everything needed was there. And yet the pilgrim instinctively refused the offer. This puzzled me at first but then I got it – he was afraid that now, after finding his spiritual master, he was being handed over to the institution. That was probably another test, and the pilgrim passed. He stayed the course, he didn’t exchange his quest for the comfort of institutional devotion. He stood up by his pledge: “Show me what prayer without ceasing means and how it is learnt,” as English translation goes.

During diksa the disciple is given a mantra but here the old man promised to give him a book. This also puzzled me because it shows a different understanding of what guru is or does – he is the one who brings us to the wisdom of previous acharyas, almost like a ritvik. There is a caveat, however – if one thinks that everybody can read a book and so guru is only like a librarian, it isn’t so. Everybody can read everything, that is true, but what they see in these books is a different matter. On our own we see only what reflects in our minds and dismiss or overlook that which has no corresponding images in out brains, it just doesn’t register. Guru, on the other hand, opens our eyes to new levels of reality behind the same set of squiggly shapes on white paper.

“Om ajnana timirandhasya” – he opens my eyes which are covered by ignorance. It’s not a matter of what we look at, it’s the matter of what our eyes can see. The book the old man is talking about was written about five hundred years ago and is a staple reading for Orthodox Christians, but it takes a guru to see passages in it illuminating the mystery of unceasing prayer. It’s called Philokalia and it’s an 18th century compilation of much much older Christian texts. More about it later.

Pilgrim’s reaction was similar – “Why this book? Is it better than the Bible?” Everybody has the Bible already but it doesn’t teach people unceasing prayer, at least not directly, so why another book? The old man replied that no, of course it’s not better than the Bible, but that it contains instructions by the acharyas and it opens up what Bible keeps secret from general population, including instructions of praying. He compared the Bible to the Sun – we can’t look at the Sun directly, we need something like arcwelder’s glass or some other device. Philokalia is such a device for reading the Bible.

So far so good – guru introduces us to the treasures of the parampara, to the collective wisdom of the devotees who came before us. Notice how this principle is followed even in Christianity – the old man hasn’t introduced anything new and he warned the pilgrim that approaching the scripture on one’s own is dangerous. And then he gave the actual mantra – the Jesus Prayer. I thought every Christian knew it but the pilgrim, apparently, heard it for the first time. The prayer itself also came from the book, btw – the old man was reading out the exact instructions:

 ‘Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.’

“The process” itself is fairly common, but rarely practiced. We are told to chant japa loudly, or at least loud enough to hear ourselves, but, traditionally, japa was not meant to be heard. Putting aside considerations of which method is better, there is a lot to be said about the process given here. In fact, I would argue that it’s what we are supposed to do, too, with only difference being that our chanting should be audible. All other components should be the same.

In the early days, both in ISKCON and in our personal practice, we tend to fall asleep if we close our eyes and lower our heads. Loud chanting in the company of other devotees helps to overcome that, but we are not in our early days anymore and the danger of falling asleep should have passed already. Now we CAN sit down alone and in silence and close our eyes and bring our mind into our hearts and chant quietly, only for ourselves. It doesn’t have to be counted towards our japa rounds and one does not require beads for this, but beads help concentration and discipline, too, so why not? The only difference is the prayer itself.

Wikipedia’s version of Jesus prayer is longer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” but wikipedia acknowledges variations. Here we don’t have “Son of God” and we don’t have “sinner” – “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” How does that compare to our Hare Krishna mantra? First of all, our mantra doesn’t have God in it. “God” is a relationship with the Divinity that does not figure in our Gaudiya Siddhanta. We just say that Krishna is also God for those who don’t live in Vrindavan, but in Vrindavan He isn’t. Since we are not Vrindavan ourselves we can address Him as God and capitalize His pronouns, but this is a conditional and not an absolute understanding.

“Jesus” has a Hebrew meaning and it refers to one who “saves” or who “delivers”. Common Sanskrit name with the same meaning is Mukunda – one who gives (da) liberation (mukti). This aspect is not present in Hare Krishna mantra, too, because, ideally, we should not be caring for liberation. The concept of liberation means there is a duality of our vision – this is bad and should be rejected and that is good and should be accepted. In our acintya bheda-abheda philosophy, however, EVERYTHING is intimately connected with the Lord and therefore there is nothing to reject and there are no Krishna’s gifts to be liberated from.

“Christ” comes from Greek and has a meaning of “anointed” there. Plus, whoever chants this Jesus Prayer definitely refers to one historic personality of Jesus Christ, who is “anointed”. Our equivalent is “Blessed Lord” in the first editions of Bhagavad Gita As It Is, which was later dismissed as too Christian and as assuming that Krishna needs someone’s blessings to become similarly “anointed”. Srila Prabhupada never used “Blessed Lord” himself and we do not miss its removal. Krishna is not “anointed”, He is the one who “anoints” everyone else. He is true “sat” – not just in the sense of “eternal” but also in the sense of “independent”. Absolutely everybody else, including all the Gods and gods and Vishnu tattvas, are dependent on Krishna. He is the only true “sat” personality out there. Anyway, without going into explanations of Trinity, Jesus is seen as God and not as a dependent entity, so the difference is not so big on this one.

It matters far more how one personally perceives either Jesus or Krishna or Rama. Word meaning does not go from dictionaries into the heart but from the heart to the lips, and dictionaries can take a hike. Nevertheless, dictionary meanings of “Lord”, “Jesus”, and “Christ” are there and I bet for most Christians they are what they feel in the heart, too. If we want we also can assign the same meanings to Krishna’s names in our mantra, but we really shouldn’t – in the ideal, pure chanting of the Holy Name these meanings are not present.

Then there’s “have mercy on me”, which is a verb followed by the object of the prayer. In standard explanation of Hare Krishna mantra this call for mercy is also there, though it’s more “engage me in Your service”, which is what we understand by real mercy. In Russian translation, this “have mercy” means more of “forgive me for my sins”, and so later addition of “have mercy on me, the sinner” completes the thought very nicely. Nicely in a sense that it makes it complete, not in a sense that we would totally approve of this prayer.

Hare Krishna mantra is ultimately chanted for the pleasure of the Lord. It doesn’t matter whether He showers His mercy on us or not – it’s not a concern at all. We just want Him to listen and to feel happy about it. In other explanations anything related to ourselves is purged from the meaning of Hare Krishna mantra altogether – the Name dances by itself and we are not participants. “Hare” refers to Krishna calling for Radha and “Krishna” and “Rama” refer to Radha calling for Krishna. They are perfectly happy together and we are the third wheel in this relationship. We only provide our tongues, and even tongues are not truly ours as they are made from matter. The mysteries of the Hare Krishna mantra go deeper and deeper but our actual realizations can’t catch up so there is no point in theorizing about something we/I can’t experience. What I can say with confidence is that our chanting shouldn’t be focused on our own benefits, on what we have done in the past, whether we were sinners or not, it shouldn’t be focused on what we can obtain in the future, it shouldn’t depend on whether Krishna “has mercy” on us or not – the flow of love should be unconditional and uninterrupted – ahaituki apratihata. It’s about Radha-Krishna, not about us.

In this way we can definitely see value in these instructions, but we also should keep in mind a relatively lower conception of the Absolute and the purpose of the prayer given here. At least at its starting point – it WILL get better later on.

Pilgrim’s Diary 3. Testing

I took a one-week break and it was for a reason – the subject matter is very grave and it has to be approached in the right frame of mind. Even more – the right frame of mind has to develop on its own and we can’t rush these things. I could have kept blabbering about each line in the book but words would have diluted the meaning. Towards the end of his life Thomas Aquinas shared with his confidant: “The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” We might never agree on what he meant exactly, but we can take these words to mean that thinking, talking, and writing about things is nowhere near the same as to know them from direct experience. I saw a rendering of this quote where when TA compared his writings to straw he meant that they were destined to be burned to ashes on meeting the Truth Itself. To put it simply – talking too much cheapens the thing. Nevertheless, continue I must.

Last time we left the pilgrim walking nowhere in particular, frustrated, when an old man caught up with him and invited him to his “house program”. The pilgrim showed no interest and I feel compelled to complete their conversation with our typical subtext: “I know everything you can tell me, old man. I’ve been to hundreds of these programs already, there is nothing new to be learned there, and I have a real problem to solve, far above your limited understanding, so forgive me for not being very excited. My problem is above your pay grade.”

The beauty of acintya-bheda-abheda philosophy, however, is that every tiny part of the Absolute can display the power of the whole thing. Every mantra, every quote, even if repeated hundreds and thousands of times without any effect, can reveal the full glory of the Lord in an instant. You never know when and where it can happen and so one should always be respectful and prepared to be blown away. This is what the old man did.

He inquired about pilgrim’s problem and said that in his … erm, I don’t know what’s the right word for a forest dwelling built by elderly monks seeking renunciation from world’s worries, and they are not really monks and it’s not really a monastery. They are just old people living together on their own, they have no titles and no standing in the society. Direct translation would be “desert” but even in modern Russian it’s not used this way anymore because these communities no longer exist. But we can reflect on the meaning of “desert” here – it’s not about sand and heat and lack of water. It’s about lack of worldly worries – that’s what turns it into “desert”. In Russian the root of this word comes from “nothing”. And it was ten miles off the main road. Anyway, the old man said that his people know lots of things and can answer all sorts of questions, so “What is it?”

“A year ago I heard that one should chant the Holy Name incessantly, not only when one is awake but also when one is asleep. How is it possible?” The actual question was much longer, had scriptural references, and showed deeply felt hankering for a solution, but space is short. This is the point where one should realize that questions of this nature shouldn’t be taken lightly, that they should come from the heart and shine with sincerity. Only then we can expect any real answers. Before that happens even the guru will be cheating us. Even the guru won’t disclose that which we are not really eager to hear. The glory of the Holy Name must always be protected from idle talk.

Upon hearing this inquiry the old man crossed himself. Not every day one meets a person who is so eager for the Truth, and this eagerness itself is already worshipable (acintya bheda-abheda again), and at this point of spiritual journey one must attain sraddha, one must attain faith in the words of the guru, and for that the guru must dispel disciple’s doubts and earn his trust, and at the same time one must not disclose everything at once, as per above paragraph. The old man handled it brilliantly. First, he explained what the problem really was and what was at its root. This showed the pilgrim that he “gets it” and demonstrated that he has a very deep understanding of the issue. It also blamed it on others, thus creating a bond between guru and disciple against “them”. While he was explaining all this, they almost reached his place and the pilgrim was all primed for actually confidential instructions, but that I will leave for the next time. For now I’ll just try to translate old man’s introductory speech. Not to English, which is already available here, but to “Vaishnava”.

First of all, one should be grateful to the Lord for the appearance of such a desire in his heart. We should realize that it’s a call from the Lord and this should fill us with comfort and confidence. While the laulyam itself, the eagerness for Krishna, grows within one’s own heart, it’s brought there from the outside. It’s not our invention and it’s not a phenomenon produced by this world. As I said before, when it comes it’s almost like the appearance of the Lord Himself because they are intrinsically linked. In fact, sometimes devotees pray for his laulyam more than they pray for the Lord Himself – because prema pumartha mahan – bhakti is a reward in itself, there is nothing greater than love of God, not even God Himself in person. Bhakti compels everyone – us, Srimati Radharani, Krishna – everyone.

One should take comfort in this understanding and one should realize that everything that happened before was only a test of one’s readiness. The Holy Name is always there, but we start striving for it only when we are ready. Thus we should see all other limbs of devotional service as training and preparation. Until we start hankering for The Name this preparation is incomplete. It’s necessary, it has to be passed, one has to invest himself very seriously, but it’s not the real thing yet. All other aspirations should fade away and one should appear to the world as a depressed person bereft of joie-de-vivre, bereft of joy of life. Many devotees today are afraid of being perceived as such but that’s the deal – if you want to live your life than Holy Name isn’t for you. Yet. Another requirement is simplicity – one must not approach the Holy Name while thinking of some other benefits. It’s not that “let me succeed in chanting and then everyone will get off my back”. Or “and my pain will go away”. Or anything else other than the Holy Name itself. All these other aspirations, hidden deep within the heart, are sings of duplicity. We need simplicity instead – nothing by the Holy Name.

There is no wonder other people can’t help us here, for they are in the same position as us – lacking qualification, lacking sincerity, lacking simplicity, but rich in selfish desires. They can talk, they can pontificate, they can give lectures, they can write books (or blog articles) but, since they approach this subject by the strength of their minds and on rationality of their God given intelligence, and not on the direct experience, their instructions are mostly concerned with external features of the unceasing chanting and not with its essence. They can talk about its benefits, about its power, about its auspiciousness, about its fruits, about procedures and techniques. They can tell us what we need – softheartedness, purity, honesty, attention, non-enviousness, humility, and so on. But what IS this unceasing chanting and how to chant like that? That they can’t say and can’t demonstrate. Rarely one will find instructions on these most important questions. These answers require direct experience, not scholarly thinking. Moreover, mental deliberations tinged with mundane commotions force us to measure divinity by our own material standards. Some go even further and claim that pure chanting can be obtained by sadhana, by doing some heroic service, that it will be some sort of a reward and so one must simply try very hard. They completely miss the point that all these heroic deeds are produced from chanting, they do not cause it. Sadhana is produced from chanting, too – it’s what you do when you love God. What we do now is mostly imitating it. I’m not against following sadhana – I am saying that when the pure Name appears in one’s heart one would “perform sadhana” with genuine love and devotion, not with the word “perform” in mind. Whatever we do in our devotional service, chanting is at the root of it. We are able to do these things now only because we have touched the Holy Name one way or another before. We wouldn’t be doing it if we had zero experience.

Without the pure Name we won’t find our way to Krishna. It simply won’t happen. Therefore we should chant and chant and chant as much as we can. As often as possible. This is, really, all we can contribute ourselves – because, as I said, the appearance of the Name and even the appearance of genuine eagerness for the Name is a gift from God. It has to be given. Or, rather, our offering for chanting many rounds has to be accepted. It’s like you can bring your goods to the market but the final word is by the customer. Of course if you don’t bring your goods there will not be even the possibility of making a sale. So, once again, all we can contribute ourselves is our efforts, and our efforts should be incessant.

That was quite an introduction. Let it sink in for a moment, let it brew in my mind for a couple of days. There is no use of going forward until these fundamental truths are fully established in our minds.

Angelic singing

They don’t let go, do they? Here’s a recording of real life angels made in a locked down church:

Presented by one of our initiating spiritual masters to a large audience at one of those “bridge preaching” festivals. On the stage there’s harmonium so they probably just had a kirtan. Behind him is a whiteboard with names of Siva, Vishnu, Krishna, and their consorts Pravati, Lakshmi, and Radha – looks not like “bridge” but pretty straightforward preaching instead. He gives a short introduction about how this recording came about, which is as follows: one overnight visitor to Mt Athos wakened in the middle of the night, hearing beautiful singing coming from the temple. He thought he overslept and missed the morning program so he ran there but temple doors were locked. He peeked through the window and saw lots of angels inside. He got his dictaphone/player from his room and recorded their singing through this window.
Next the speaker says that authenticity of this record is being investigated by professionals, but also tells people to simply hear it and feel it for themselves. Several people saw their previous lives while listening to this recording, he says. One woman saw herself in her mother’s womb. He asks the audience to take it seriously, it’s not a joke and not a prank. He wants to share this experience as a gift to others because it would not be right to keep it to himself. Audience applauds.
While recording is cued up, he tells people that some specialists have already declared that human voice is physically incapable of making such sounds. He again asks people to feel it for themselves and then shares his own realization – that times are changing, that higher powers are getting involved, supernatural things are happening and our faith will become stronger and stronger in this regard. Materialistic people are doomed, we should not strive for material things, we should use them only as an instrument, like we use healthy lifestyle. Everything else is already given and angels are coming to sing with us already. They know us very well. “Our festival will not go unnoticed up there,” he says. And then the recording starts. Of real life angels.
This was at a festival in 2018.

Back in 2014 this same story was featured in some Russian language TV program where Russian Donald Trump Junior asked an Orthodox priest a few questions about it. His first question was whether these were real angels or maybe “besy” – demons who try to divert faithful form the path of religion. It’s a big thing in Orthodox Christianity – Prelest. I don’t think I can give it justice here but there are tons and tons of warnings to practicing monks not to confuse genuine spirituality with these demons’ work. The priest answers that in this case it’s unlikely because he can’t find any deviations being introduced here. However, he doesn’t consider subtle pride that comes with realization “we can see and hear angels, we are important” so this doesn’t sound conclusive to me. They made out the song and the words, btw, and discussed why the recording captures only the part of it. The beginning was missed, that’s understandable, but the last part was not sung because it’s about concerns of ordinary humans not shared by angels so they naturally didn’t sing about them, the priest explained. Another point he made was that this singing follows traditional Byzantine style, sung in unison, as opposed to the style introduced in the 17th century splitting choir voices into multiple harmonious parts. This record should settle the question of whether this innovation was appropriate or not, he says. All in all it was a deep and meaningful discussion. You can turn translation in Youtube settings if you want:


A lot can be discussed here, the “prelest” angle could turn very fruitful, for example. Or we could talk about fitting these Christian angels into Vedic hierarchy, or so many other things, but let’s start and stop with just one – it’s a fake. In the comments to the above video people give references to 1962 performance of this song by a Greek singer and that it needs to be sped up for the desired effect. I tried it myself and it sounds remarkably similar even without any editing.

What more needs to be said? Maybe that fakes generate a lot of life of their own and people eagerly fall for them – just look at all the current claims about coronavirus.

Finally, this leaves me with the most disturbing realization of all – these days our gurus cannot be explicitly trusted and everything they say needs to be double checked. How can devotees make any spiritual progress this way? Even if I’m not his disciple, when I hear him speak I expect him to speak the truth, not spread cheap internet fakes for dubious purposes. We are not getting closer to angels by doing this. Paraphrasing Srila Prabhupada – if you hear angels while chanting, keep chanting – it will go away. This turns us into sahajyas who take everything very cheaply. Forget about trust – such association needs to be avoided instead. And how do you know when such a devotee imposes another fake on you? How do you know when a vaishnava speaks the truth and when he embellishes it for the benefit of the audience? Simple – vaishnavas don’t do that so we don’t need to guess. We need to hear to a “guru” or to a “dhira” – heavy and steady respectively – to people who are not swayed by fakes and feelings.

PS. I spotted this story on Hanuman’s website but he is such a deluded offender that I don’t want to provide a link. It was sent to him by some unnamed devotee so he is not the original source that really needs to be credited.

About disappearing swans…

A few days ago Youtube suggested me a video, a song, with “Hare Krishna” in the title, so I checked it out. I’ve written about another song by the same singer here already and I’m fairly familiar with his earlier music, but this turned out to be new to me. I knew he used to sing “Hare Krishna” in concerts but I haven’t seen it on any records.

The reason might be because it’s from a movie that came out after I joined so I never watched it and didn’t know it existed, until now. At first I thought it was too sugary but as I listened to the lyrics I thought it deserves to be explained and shared, not that I can really explain it with my meager intelligence.

We’ve had a fair share of famous singers using Hare Krishna in their records, starting with George Harrison. Boy George was a poster boy for a while, too, but there’s one notable difference with this Russian “B.G.” – his songs have always been very cryptic, like sutras. Btw, I’ll use “BG” to spare English readers from parsing his full Slavic name. In the previously covered song I saw appearance of Lord Caitanya, for example. Second appearance, to be precise – because that’s what Hare Krishna movement is – Lord Caitanya’s entrance into lives of those who were not fortunate enough to have lived in India five hundred years ago. I don’t know if anyone else can understand that song this way, no one on the internet, afaik, but I insist that this is a legitimate interpretation. Just reflect on the meaning of that line from Bhaktivinoda Thakura – “all the people of the world are patiently waiting for the time when Lord Caitanya’s party comes to their door.” Just think about it’s meaning, let it sink into our hearts, and I’m sure you’ll see Mahaprabhu everywhere, too.

Anyway, back to this song. It appeared at the end of the movie, I haven’t watched the whole thing but from the plot descriptions it looks like a weird spy story. The song is timed in such a way that “Hare Krishna” comes exactly when the credits starts to roll – a reward for those who really pay attention, just like the Holy Name itself. The movie begins with another cryptic song about “Blue Janitor”, which I knew by heart in those days, but I never thought that it was about Krishna before I read our books. “Janitor” is simply an urban substitution for “cowherd boy”, function is the same. Perhaps it deserves another post. The video I post here is an extended version and singer’s voice is much much older than back in 1991.

In this song Christians can definitely hear about Christ – lyrics open with the prayer for “vanished swan” which disappeared into darkness. Russian case inflections make it suggestive that the speaker prays *for* this swan, or *about* this swan, which kinda blows Christian interpretation – who are we to pray *for* Jesus? We can pray *to* him, but not for him, right?

Then comes the refrain – “let the saints give us protection”. Just think about this prayer at the end of each verse – how often do we appeal to the help of the parampara at the end of whatever it is we have to say? How often do we realize that we are completely dependent on our predecessor acharyas? How often to we reflect on the meaning of “rupanugas”?

Typically, our prayers start and end with Srila Prabhupada, but his strength didn’t come from nowhere – he spent years of sleepless nights praying at the Rupa Goswami’s samadhi for help and guidance, weeping alone in the darkness. Srila Prabhupada’s mercy wasn’t “causeless” in this sense – he fully prayed for it, pardon the pun.

So, who do we pray for when we embark on any new adventure? “Let the saints offer us protection”. Saints, not the Lord. Who are we to appeal to the Lord directly? If He ever listens to us it’s only because of the mercy of the sampradaya.

Second verse is fully encrypted, 256 RSA key. If in the first verse “swan” can easily be identified as JC, the second verse talks about “sleeping trees”. What are they? Who are they referring to? It’s like passages from Rig Veda that can be easily translated but their meaning is still incomprehensible. And there are passages there that haven’t been properly translated yet – it’s still just a word soup to Sanskritologists. So, I don’t know what Christians make of it, but to me “sleeping trees” are us, ordinary people who haven’t been awakened to our real lives yet. Spiritually speaking, we are senseless like trees, even though we can move about in the material world. This translation makes sense to me.

Second line talks about wind that doesn’t touch their dreams, or can’t touch their dreams, or won’t touch their dreams. How to parse this prayer? What I see is Lord’s mercy which is still being withdrawn from us. His lilas are ever growing but they don’t touch our miserable, tree-like existence. They don’t cross into our lives, they can’t cross down here, and they won’t. But if we pray for it… That’s what we do with chanting Hare Krishna, after all. We beg the Name to descend into our lives and wake us up from our dreams. But it won’t – not until we make ourselves ready. In the Bible there’s a line in this regard: “many be called, but few chosen”. Unless we are chosen, we are like sleeping trees. Chosen – it means the final word belongs to the Lord, it’s not up to us.

Lord’s mercy is unlimited, but it won’t come into the heart filled with anarthas. So by constantly chanting, mantra after mantra, round after round, day after day, year after year, we slowly chisel away all the accumulated dirt in our hearts and hope that one day we’ll become worthy of Lord’s mercy. Therefore we pray for the “wind” that normally doesn’t disturb these sleeping trees. “Wind”, btw, is the property of air, it’s what brings movement, brings change into the world. It purifies and liberates and lifts us up. It’s a very appropriate prayer whichever way you look at it, and it ends with the appeal to the saints to extend their protection.

Next verse reminds us that in front of the Lord we can’t offer any excuses. We can’t blame anyone else, we can’t pass our faults as someone else’s. We can’t be dishonest. This is a very important point – the Lord resides in that corner of our hearts where we are absolutely honest. How often we ourselves go there? Not very, right? But that’s where the Lord dwells. But what to do about our faults? Next line tells us – “you yourself is a justification enough”. What??? How can this bag of envy and cheating and lust be a justification for anything? We can’t process it in our ISKCON realm of four regulative principles, for example. We can’t contemplate a situation where the Lord would accept one’s committing sinful activities and forgive one for that. It’s our red line – four regs or out. Nevertheless it’s the truth – our existence is justification it itself to appear before the Lord and become accepted. How so?

The easy answer lies in “tat te ‘nukampāṁ su-samīkṣamāṇo” verse from Bhagavatam which says that for a devotee absolutely every situation, even an unfavorable one, is a blessing from the Lord. The point is that whatever the Lord arranges for us, even if detestable by everybody else’s standards, is His loving and caring arrangement for our purification and benefit. When seeing it this way, as a matter between oneself and the Lord and without trying to impress others, one can appreciate the body and its karma given to us as a justification in itself to invite the Lord into our hearts, or rather to reveal Himself. With this vision one automatically gives up propensity to lie and hide his sins – there are no sins between us and the Lord, only His unlimited mercy and our lack of appreciation for it.

Next line further elaborates on this condition of the heart – one stands before the Lord without “bread in his hands”. In Russia honorable guests are greeted with a loaf of freshly baked bread (and a serving of salt), but once we open our hearts to the Lord we realize we have nothing to offer to Him. We own nothing in this world and so we feel totally unqualified to receive Him. There are lots of personalities in Srimad Bhagavatam who attained Lord’s mercy but we are not one of them. Narada Muni discovered that every one of the otherwise celebrated devotees has this attitude of being unqualified and undeserving of Lord’s mercy in Brihad Bhagavatamrita.

Another feature of the soul in this humble position given in this line is that one has “no guiding star” in his life. To anyone else we can say that we follow this person or that person, this idea or that idea, prefer iPhones or Androids, liberals or conservatives, but in front of the Lord we have no one else to follow and no places to go, no other destinations. The song informs us that at this moment one feels himself infinitely alone. I suppose because the world and everyone else in it just fades away and disappears from view. Who are you going to turn to when you are standing before the Lord? No one else is there. Alternatively, the “star” in this verse can refer to stars pinned on the chests of brave soldiers and generals, feathers in one’s cap, so to speak. Makes sense as well.

And then, after a couple of minutes of the flute solo (this flute like instrument really carries the entire song), comes the last verse which repeats the line about “vanished swan” but this time it says that He disappeared only to come back to us again, and this time refrain has changed to “saints HAVE given us mercy”. This turn makes the song into an outpouring of vipralambha, the pain of being separated from the Lord, not just lecturing on things. Without deeply feeling Lord’s absence one cannot possibly cry for the Holy Name. Harinama IS the cry of the soul separated from the Lord, it’s not the sound of someone content with his life. It doesn’t happen to people who still think they own things, have positions, reputations, interests, goals, “guiding stars” etc. It’s only when we distance ourselves from these worldly things that we can turn our attention to the Lord and utter His name with love and devotion. Let the saints extend us their mercy so that we can actually do that.

After processing all this I decided to change my first impression as “sugary” of the Hare Krishna chant that follows this verse. It might appear sugary due to lack of chanting practice by the singer, but its foundation is solid.

There are many other things I want to appreciate about this song. How the word “prayer” appears only twice in five minutes but every line is tied to it grammatically – because of Russian inflections of verbs and nouns. I guess that’s what it feels like when translating Sanskrit – there simply are no tools in the English language to convey all the nuances and poetic beauty they produce. That is not to say that English poetry is somehow deficient, but it’s different, and it means that it expresses certain feelings but not the ones found in Sanskrit, or in this case in Russian. They are beautiful in their own way, but different. Just like there’s no equivalent for the sweet beat of mridanga. Lord’s madhurya needs appropriate instruments to be expressed, it can’t be done with whatever drum you can find, you can’t express it fully without mridanga.

Did I mention that the movie with this song came out in 1991, which means it was recorded even earlier? Possibly at the time when Russians had only underground Bhagavad Gitas or, maybe, first imported Teachings of Lord Caitanya and Isopanishads at most. How did BG get this deep insight into our philosophy? For one thing, it’s not really unique and is common to all religious paths, Christianity included (but not to all Christians, naturally). Come to think of it, their anticipation of the second coming IS love in separation, though they don’t normally talk about it this way.

In this connection we can remember the story of Narada Muni who experienced a brief appearance by the Lord and then spent the rest of his life longing for Him. It was certainly love in separation, and we can see similar examples of echoes of the original separation of the gopis in Vraja everywhere. It reverberates through the entire world, manifesting itself here and there, and it takes real appreciation for it to spot it in everyday events. At this point I don’t mind whether it comes from our devotees or from people like this BG. We should feel forever indebted to whoever brings it to us – amanina manadena. How else can we expect to chant the Holy Name? Only by seeing His mercy in every soul, every object, every phenomena coming into our experience.

Hare Krishna