Vanity thought #1746. Tin soldiers

I’m still puzzled by appearance of cancer in my life, it doesn’t make any sense yet. At first I thought that it was a clean way to take me out and, hopefully, back home, but it doesn’t look like Lord’s plan at the moment. Barred some unexpected lab results I’m recovering rather well instead of dying, so what does it all mean? I have no clue.

Maybe it’s just karma acting up, but it affects lots ff other people for no apparent reason as well. They don’t seem to have deserved it. Or maybe it’s a prelude some new beginning in my life but so far there are no sighs of it, I’m just back to my usual everyday drudgery. Why did we spend so much money on my treatment? It wold have been far cheaper for me to just die. If they second round of chemo doesn’t stop this cancer then we won’t have resources to fight further as it would then become a clearly a losing battle and it would consume all our savings very fast with very little gain even in the best case scenario .

Ultimately, however, it’s not my puzzle to solve. The lack of cl clarity in Lord’s purpose is common for conditioned beings, there’s nothing to be surprised about here. It’s much better to forget these futile efforts and concentrate on what can we do for the Lord instead.

One night in hospital I was pondering this exact question from many different angles and it always comes back to one very simple truth – we are nothing but little, expendable soldiers in Lord Caitanya’s army, everything else is just fluff. We aren’t even particularly brave or reliable and we shirk our battle duties all the time, but we still don’t have any other identities. He took us in and it’s all that ultimately matters.

It’s like in that Steadfast Tin Soldier children story – those soldiers were cast from molten spoon to become and army but they never actually thought any battles. They just reminded people that there are real armies out there and real soldiers and real battles bu this was just a toy set without any particular use. The hero there spent the whole story chasing some girl instead – reminds you of anything? He then got thrown into the fire for no particular reason and melted again. No in the shape of a gun or a shield or a flag but in the shape of a heart – because of his love interest in paper ballerina who got burned with him. What kind of solider was that? Is this what he was supposed to fight for? And yet he WAS a soldier, however useless, and that was his only worth. Actually, he was only a model of a soldier and that was the only value he had.

We are the same, we are not really helping and, by the look of things, many of us spend their energy on fighting among ourselves instead of helping Lord Caitanya, but we have no other identities but his little, worthless, forgetful servants. Nothing will ever rob us of that whatever happens – life, death, cancer, fame, glory etc. etc.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur had plenty of health problems and no access to modern medicine. Sometimes his idea of treatment was to move to another city where the climate was different. Sometimes he used ghee masks to treat his migraines – not much of a treatment either. All the while he was preaching and writing so these were obstacles on the path to otherwise a clear goal but in my case the goal remains elusive. What am I taking on these difficulties for? All I can remember is Lord Brahma’s verse from tenth canto where he said that those who tolerate their karma without complaints deserve liberation, which becomes their rightful claim. Inspiring but still rather limited.

Sanatana Gosvami’s case was probably better and maybe that’s why it’s in Caitanya Caritamrita.He picked up a nasty skin infection while traveling to Puri and when he arrived there he avoided main streets so that he couldn’t accidentally contaminate servants of Lord Jagannath. He was so aggrieved by his situation that he decided to commit suicide on the day of Ratha Yatra by jumping under the ratha’s wheels.

Lord Caitanya’s reaction was truly remarkable there, we should never ever forget his reasoning, even is said in jest. He reminded Sanatana Gosvami that he had surrendered his body and soul to Him already so it wasn’t Sanatana Gosvami’s body to kill anymore. Whether healthy or diseased, the Lord had His own plans on it and Hewasn’t obliged to share them with Sanatana Gosvami (even though He eventually did). These plans didn’t materialize right away either, the Lord was playing a long game there. I reckon it took years for these plans even to begin to manifest.

As for the disease – one embrace from the Lord cured it on the spot, nothing to really worry about.

As I was contemplating all these things in the middle of the night, in a half dream state, I imagined Lord Caitanya placing his feet on my head and shortly after that I visualized a small, mischievous looking black entity exiting my body and then, shortly afterwards, some black liquid being sucked out of my veins. I do not put much trust in such mental concoctions but until the evidence shows otherwise the reality seems to conform with this particular one so I’m not ready to simply dismiss it.

From seeing other people fight with their cancer I know that the second bout is the scariest, just when they thought they were in the clear. Whatever bravery they had when they first started their treatments was gone and that was left is primal, animalistic fear of death. I might get hit with that one, too. It would blow against my hopeful state but at least I am mentally prepared. Who knows Lord’s plans? Certainly not me.

One very important thing to learn, though, is overcoming this fear of death. Our service to the Lord is much more important than that. Like real soldiers we shouldn’t be concerned with dying, only with fulfilling our role in a battle. If we are in a real fight, in a real war, like the ones fought in the last century, then death should fade away by itself. If we forget our role in Lord Caitanya’s army then, of course, we’ll become fearful. I hope the Lord shows enough mercy to elevate me above this mundane consciousness when my time comes.

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Vanity thought #1720. God learns about death

National Geographic recently put out a six part series called “The story of God with Morgan Freeman”. It’s a good choice of a presenter because Morgan Freeman played God as an actor a couple of times already so here he is basically learning more about himself.

I haven’t watched the whole show yet but it looks promising, especially the episode called “Who is God”, I hope I won’t be disappointed. The first episode is about death, another interesting topic, so let’s see what Morgan Freeman learned about it. Thanks to the folks at National Geographic full episodes can be viewed online and there’s an interesting “explore” section as well. The first episode is here.

Morgan Freeman is an old man and he projects and image of a wise person. At the same time he is keen to learn new things and shows a great deal of respect to whoever he speaks with. He doesn’t laugh at sometimes silly ideas but rather strives to see values and roots of people’s beliefs. To learn about death he went around the world asking experts in different cultures about how they deal with death, or dealt with death when these cultures were still alive.

He visited Egypt, Jerusalem, Varanasi, and Mexico, as well as New York for the modern science take on the issue as well. Needless to say, science deals with death very differently, but even there Freeman managed to find something promising for us as devotees. In fact, he starts with interviewing a man who documents cases of near death experience, who once nearly drowned himself, spending more than fifteen minutes under water.

That man is absolutely convinced that death is not the end of all and that our consciousness can function when our brains do not. Normally, science would insist that near death experiences are caused by misfiring neurons or something, but not this man. His description of the white light welcoming him is something one must see for himself. The man is clearly not concerned with what others think of his story, he knows that it is true. He also says that the brief moment when the white light communicated with him felt like the most intimate, most meaningful relationship in his life ever. Was he getting a glimpse of the Supersoul? Sounds like it. Are these visions similar across different people and cultures? Pretty close, but I bet we all would describe them in terms familiar to us, translate it into language of our religion. Would we, as devotees, see a four armed form of Viṣṇu? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe all we would see is the brilliance of His toenails and that’s all. It would look like multiple lights described by this man and if we don’t get to see anything else even we, as devotees, would be confused.

The main take for me from that story is that man’s personal conviction. It’s his actual realization and it can’t be swayed by arguments and “proofs”. Having experienced that relationship he is not going to take doubters seriously anyway. He has a website that is called Dharma Talks, btw.

I don’t know much about afterlife in Ancient Egypt or in Aztec empire but a trip to Varanasi should have produced something familiar and it did. Freeman met with some impersonalist sannyāsī and got the tourist version of reincarnation. It wasn’t wrong but it wasn’t particularly insightful either. Compared to Christian heaven Hinduism didn’t promise much – just mokṣa, liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The question about what happens after that was left hanging with just one mysterious reference to “nature of God”.

What I disliked about that part is that one crematorium in Varanasi was presented as if it’s the only way of achieving mokṣa for the billion of Hindus, which does make it sound like superstition rather than a serious religious path. Freeman wasn’t allowed into the crematorium itself but we got to see people carrying lots of dead bodies through the streets. It looked only marginally better than Aztec’s human sacrifices – people were just shoved and hurried through a system without a pause to think it through. Aztecs, of course, took living people and sacrificed them to Gods, but it was the same kind of mindless machinery in Varanasi where they take any dead body, run with it through the streets, burn it in already prepared fire, and process the next candidate for liberation. I even think they start processing the next one while the first one is still in the system, and they also appear to process them in parallel for maximum efficiency.

I’m not going to doubt the power of that holy place but there’s so much more to Hinduism quest for mokṣa than that. Yoga, tapasya, deity worship, worship of ancestors, not to mention our Gauḍiyā fifth goal of life – premā.

The way Hinduism was treated there makes me doubt that coverage of Mexican, Aztec, of Ancient Egyptian cultures was sufficiently insightful. It appears they do not have the concept of liberation and their living and dead are always in relationships with each other. In any case, death wasn’t something final in any of those religions, just a change that needs to be dealt with.

Coverage of Christianity was somewhat disappointing, too. The only death that matters to them is that of Christ. The documentary took us right into what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus himself, or what is built on top of it, and we got to see actual Jewish “cemetery” of that time right next to it. Freeman said that energy there was unmistakable and that’s another interesting point that goes against modern science. People feel it while science says it doesn’t exist. That doesn’t work for believers, of course. In fact, we shouldn’t call them “believers” at all because they describe their experiences here, not their beliefs. To them these experiences are real no matter what atheists say. We know that atheists can’t feel this “energy” and we know why so we don’t particularly care about their arguments and opinions – see the man I talked about earlier.

What I found odd about Christianity there was that they share this same holy place with Jews and Muslims and yet they keep claiming that salvation can be achieved only through acceptance of Christ. Morgan Freeman didn’t catch them on that but it’s probably for the better – it kept the conversation respectful.

Finally, back in New York, Freeman showed us a prototype of conserved intelligence, a robot programmed to behave like an actual person. It’s programmed to like the same things, speak in the same way etc etc. It would be able to do it when the actual person dies and so that would kind of preserve that person for eternity. They think it would be some sort of a breakthrough, that they’d upload their entire personalities on the internet and continue living through these artificial minds. Silly people. It’s just a tad more advanced than having a picture taken. I mean a picture serves the same purpose, a video is a step above that, a hologram is a step even further, and having a doll to repeat the same sentences is just more of the same thing.

That’s how Morgan Freeman concluded his presentation there – that we will live through memories. That might happen or it might not, depending on how popular we are, but this “answer” still doesn’t accept that there’s no such thing as death for the spirit soul and we will continue living as we are, just in different conditions – another body, heaven, liberation, whatever.

Vanity thought #1663. Ante nārāyaṇa-smṛtiḥ

In the past couple of days I often mentioned the difference in goals between us and the rest of the materialistic society. This is obvious, of course, but our exact goals are much less clear. What do we want from Kṛṣṇa? What do we expect? What can we reasonably expect?

Devotional literature in our sampradāya offers a wide range of achievements from the highest goal of developing Kṛṣṇa premā down but we also know that most of it is closed for us and we’ll never be able to experience it while in our present bodies. We know that eventually, by the grace of our predecessor ācāryas, we will attain Kṛṣṇa’s company but how we will get there is less clear. Will it be another birth in this world but in Kṛṣṇa’s presence? Or will we taken straight to the spiritual world? There are good arguments for both outcomes, plus Śrīla Prabhupāda promised return back to Godhead from the very beginning.

It would require a little word jugglery to accommodate that promise with another birth in Kṛṣṇa’s presence but I bet we are up for it because, while technically incorrect, being in Kṛṣṇa’s company is not the same as being in the material world due to one’s karma, it’s not a return to the world of the repeated birth and death.

The argument goes that we get to train ourselves for direct participation in Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes just like those unnamed gopīs who couldn’t participate in rasa dance. They were with Kṛṣṇa but not quite there yet. They were technically born inside of the universe but they weren’t a part of it either. They had to die like ordinary people do but they didn’t suffer from birth, death, old age and disease because they were liberated.

Then we have even the higher gift of service when Kṛṣṇa asks His devotees to come back to the material world to reclaim fallen souls because they are very very good at it. I seriously doubt anyone ever says no to such a request and I’ve heard that in one of his books Śrīla Sanātana Gosvāmī said that these requests are very common. Will we be asked the same? Quite possible.

Right now for many of us it seems like a waste of time because we are largely useless of the preaching mission but it’s one thing to try and take it up from our present condition and quite another to come back empowered by the Lord Himself. With His blessings everything will become possible, no excuses.

Then there’s a “minor” matter of us being saved by Lord Caitanya. He taught us to serve Kṛṣṇa, of course, but I don’t see how this bond between us can ever be broken. We will always be His servants and this means we will always be concerned with spiritual welfare of the conditioned souls. Just like each incarnation of the Lord has its own faithful following we will always be in Lord Caitanya’s posse. For us this will be preferable even to eternal pastimes with Kṛṣṇa Himself because that is our natural position. We will never be excluded from Vṛndāvana either so we’ll have the best of both worlds.

Does it mean that we all will stay in this world indefinitely to serve Lord Caitanya’s mission in one universe after another? Quite possible, but hardly any one of us mentally prepares himself for such an outcome. We are just not up to it, only the best of us, devotees who already act on a liberated platform, can consider it seriously.

So, what’s left for the rest of us? The fact that we have been plucked out of completely materialistic surroundings means that outcome of our current attempts at service will be far more modest. Kṛṣṇa premā, eternal preaching service, milking surabhi cows – that’s not for us, not in the immediate future and so we should not get carried away.

Take Mahārāja Parīkṣit, for example. He was descendant of the Pāṇdavas and therefore related to Kṛṣṇa Himself. He was saved by the Lord in the womb of his mother, he was a pure devotee from his very birth, he was the original recipient of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, who are we compared to Him? Nobodies. So, what was HIS goal of life, as explained by Śukadeva Gosvāmī?

It was his direct question right in the beginning, when Śrīla Śukadeva first made his entrance (SB 1.19.37-38):

    You are the spiritual master of great saints and devotees. I am therefore begging you to show the way of perfection for all persons, and especially for one who is about to die. Please let me know what a man should hear, chant, remember and worship, and also what he should not do. Please explain all this to me.

And what did Śukadeva Gosvāmī answer? Premā-pumartho-mahān? No. He declared the following (SB 2.1.6):

    The highest perfection of human life, achieved either by complete knowledge of matter and spirit, by practice of mystic powers, or by perfect discharge of occupational duty, is to remember the Personality of Godhead at the end of life.

Ante nārāyaṇa-smṛtiḥ – at the end we should remember Nārāyaṇa. That’s it, nothing fancy. There are plenty of quotes from Śrīla Prabhupāda telling us the same thing, before we get carried away with all the other delicious prospects. Chant sixteen rounds without fail, follow the regulative principles, and that should enable us to remember Kṛṣṇa at the moment of death. That’s all we have been promised, that’s our contract with our guru.

We can dream of this and prepare for that but all we really need to do is to remember Kṛṣṇa at the end of our lives. Many devotees prepare themselves for entrance into Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes. They read up on them and try to develop attachment to hearing about them, they retell these stories to one another, they hope that it would help relieve them from sexual attraction, yet the goal of all this hearing and reading is still far more modest – remember Kṛṣṇa at the end of life. In our current state everything else is pure speculation.

Of course even if some devotees do all those things for a wrong reason it still helps them to think of Kṛṣṇa on their deathbed so there’s no loss. Still, we should be realistic with our expectations and there are other ways for these unauthorized discussions to impede us in our service. We think that remembering Kṛṣṇa would be OUR action, that it would be OUR choice, but no, it’s more likely that we won’t be able to think straight and make any decisions whatsoever. The ability to think of Kṛṣṇa would be due to blessings of our guru which come in reciprocation for the lifetime of service. If we spend our lives doing something else then blessings might not be there even if we ostensibly engaged ourselves in discussing Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes.

Kṛṣṇa’s appearance in our mind would be Kṛṣṇa’s, it won’t come as a result of our own attempts, and Kṛṣṇa comes only by the mercy of the guru no matter what we read or discuss. If guru’s mercy is not there then there won’t be Kṛṣṇa either. The point is – we should be very careful with inventing our own ways to render service, it should be done on guru’s terms, not ours.

Vanity thought #1582. The actual event

I’ll try to pretend that nothing happened over the New Year – no family gatherings, no drives to the airport, no skype sessions with missing relatives, and just pick up where I left off. It’s probably the only way to get back in the saddle, as they say.

So far I’ve discussed Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī’s last public address to his disciples, not the actual event of his departure from our view. He sensed that death was coming to claim his body but he kept on preaching, arguing that Hari bhajana is our only engagement in this world and so we shouldn’t stop it even for the death itself.

For some people their final days last for a long time, weeks if not months. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta, otoh, kept a fairly busy schedule almost until the end, he was confined to bed for only ten days. If we look at the civian calendar, he was last seen walking about on 20th Dec when he surprised Ananta Vāsudeva Prabhu by visiting him in his room because he hasn’t seen him in quite a while. On the 23rd he gave that last speech, the next day he noticed that there was no kīrtana and no lecture going on in the temple and demanded the normal program to be resumed. There is a joke on this topic about a dying Jewish shopkeeper and his family, devotees are apparently no different in keeping their priorities straight no matter what. The biography doesn’t have any records after that day until Dec 31.

On New Year’s eve he had a busy morning, not that anyone cared about New Year in India. Śridhara Svāmī was there and Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī asked him to sing Śrī Rūpa Mañjarī pada. This episode was also recalled by Śrīdhara Mahārāja himself and it was pretty close to how it’s described by Bhakti Vikāsa Svāmī’s biography. The thing was that Śrīdhara Svāmī wasn’t a regular singer and so a senior disciple instructed the usual, reputed kīrtanīyā to take over. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta, however, insisted on Śrīdhara Svāmī continuing and said that he wasn’t concerned with melodious intonations.

He then asked another devotee to sing one of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s songs which ended with the following verse:
“O Lord, I am extremely unfortunate. My attachment for the holy name has never come about. The heart of Bhaktivinoda is overwhelmed with sadness.” Upon hearing these last lines, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī clapped his hand to his forehead as profuse tears of humility decorated his cheeks, warning of the lamentable plight of being unattracted to the holy name – that’s verbatim from the book.

This is a perfect illustration of what is supposed to happen to us in the best case scenario at the highest possible stages of advancement. We won’t be having visions of Kṛṣṇa and His jolly calves prancing around Vṛndāvana. All we can hope for is profound humility, overwhelming realization that we have absolutely no taste for chanting of the holy name. Nothing else is possible to realize while in bodily consciousness – lack of bhakti is our constitutional state here, we can’t have it any other way until our consciousness gets separated from material senses and sense objects. Ordinary people see flowers and sunsets, perfect devotees see absence of the Lord and absence of devotion.

Next came a big and important talk about the future of the mission. I don’t want to start an argument how exactly it should have been interpreted, what was the background, or how different parties understood it. I’ll just give my own impression and would urge everyone else to thread carefully, too. There were lots of invested interests at the time, different devotees chose different courses of actions and we can be sure they felt totally justified themselves. Our side is Srila Prabhupada’s side but he wasn’t there and if someone says that this is not how it all played out we can get into an unpleasant argument for no good reason.

It was the day when Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī gave instructions on how to carry on Gauḍiyā Maṭha mission in his absence, that the devotees should form a GBC and so on. That’s what we know about it but there were other instructions, too, and it might have been confusing. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī entrusted management to one particular devotee, for example, and he wasn’t everybody’s favorite. He then asked who was the most knowledgeable in the śāstra and entrusted that devotee to continue spreading the rūpa-raghunātha-vāṇī. Similarly, he gave various orders to other devotees who might have thought it was more important for them than worrying about GBC.

I can see how some devotees might have interpreted these orders as indicators of who should be appointed as an ācārya and I can understand how they didn’t take the order to form the GBC more seriously because it wasn’t addressed to them personally. We can easily say “they didn’t form the GBC and that’s why they failed” but we should also remember that instead of “they didn’t” we can consider various “they dids”. I’m pretty sure no one thought “I’m not going to follow this order” but everyone was busy busy with what they thought they had to do. It happens to us all the time – we become too preoccupied with doing something and don’t even notice we missed something else. It’s very easy to judge others from a safe distance and with full knowledge of history. Things never look quite the same in the heat of the moment, we should not forget that.

Among other, non-controversial things, there was an order to complete publishing Vaiṣṇava-mañjuṣā – a Sanskrit dictionary explaining meaning of every word, every root, every syllable, every sound as manifestation of Kṛṣṇa. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī got a big donation for this project once and it was important for another reason, too, which I intend to explain in a couple of days.

Another instruction was to a disciple who had a temporary fallout with his guru: “Either in love or rupture, it is good to maintain the same purpose.” This should tell us that our relationship with our guru is eternal and while it sometimes appears to be affected by karmic considerations we should not take it very seriously, these things come and go, they hinder our relationships only for a short time.

His last message was: “All of you, present and absent, accept my blessings. Remember that our sole duty and dharma is to propagate service to the Lord and His devotees.”

Next morning, around 5.20, he came to consciousness and asked who was present. Devotees were supposed to change shifts at that time and as one devotee was leaving, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta left the body. His last words were “Oh…Oh…Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa”.

This happened in Calcutta and devotees took his body to Māyāpur for final rights, arriving there when it was already evening. It’s not particularly important what rituals they observed and how. His body was transcendental but we should be more concerned with the journey of the soul. I want to speculate on how the death could have possibly felt for Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta but it won’t be today.

Vanity thought #1580. Last words

Let’s look closer at Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī’s last public address I posted yesterday in full. It was jotted down by one of his disciples and then published in Gaudiya magazine, which was Gauḍiyā Maṭha’s main publication. The English translation from Bengali can be easily found elsewhere on the internet. A book by HH Bhaktivikāsa Svāmī has several footnotes that deserves to be included, too, but let’s start at the beginning.

Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī never in his entire life took any medicine, he put his health solely in the hands of Kṛṣṇa. We are not advised to imitate him in this but we should at least know that it’s a possibility and only our immaturity as aspiring devotees is stopping us from following his footsteps in this regard. Our conditioning puts us at the mercy of the material energy, if she tells us to take medicine than we should not act as if are liberated, we depend on her and on her help but Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta didn’t.

Having said that, he still behaved as a conditioned living being – experiencing pain, old age, constant battles with his mind etc just like the rest of us. For him, however, all those troubles were external because he didn’t identify himself with his body. We do, we think it’s us who get old and sick, and we hardly ever notice our mind wondering away from Kṛṣṇa’s service, we just happily go along for the ride, only occasionally catching ourselves on deviations. When we think of liberation we expect that all these troubles would stop but from Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s life we can see that it won’t be the case. Birth, death, old age, and disease will continue but we won’t take it personally and to outsiders the advantage provided by Kṛṣṇa consciousness will be impossible to detect.

So, even if Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta was aware of his imminent departure he continued with his service without interruptions. He left his body in the morning of January 1, 1937, yet he spent whole of November giving daily lectures on Śrīmad Bhāgavatam in Purī which lasted for several hours each. When he was returning to Calcutta in the beginning of December quite a few people realized that they were seeing their guru for the last time. He became bedridden on the 18th of December, only two weeks before departure, and the last public speech was given on the 23rd. After that he just didn’t have the power but regularly listened to devotees singing songs by Bhaktivinoda and Narottama Dāsa Ṭhākuras.

A couple of doctors approached him but devotees joked that instead of treating him they got a treatment themselves – spiritual treatment, that is. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s arguments were simple – this body is given to us for engagement in Kṛṣṇa kathā and so harināma is the only suitable medicine. The doctor in Purī whose main proposal was to restrict Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s lecturing got it the heaviest and was left completely bewildered that all his learning was completely blown to pieces. He didn’t expect that a patient would be so clear in his dedication to Kṛṣṇa’s service that he’d forgo his personal bodily comfort even when threatened by death. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta wasn’t fanatical either, it’s just that the condition of his body had no effect on the condition of his consciousness, mind, or intelligence.

His last speech began with asking forgiveness from those who were thought to be his enemies. Our Śrīla Prabhupāda did that, too, and some have misconstrued it to mean that he abandoned his disciples and took shelter in his godbrothers instead, finally realizing the error of his ways. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s apology, however, makes it clear that all this enemy making business was for people’s own benefit and he hoped that one day they will surely realize it. That’s how we should see our Prabhupāda’s
apology, too, even if it was worded differently, as far as I remember.

    I have upset many persons’ minds. Many might have considered me their enemy, because I was obliged to speak the plain truth of service and devotion toward the Absolute Godhead. I have given them all those troubles only so they might turn their face toward the Personality of Godhead without any desire for gain, and with unalloyed devotion. Surely some day they will be able to understand that.

He then told his disciples to propagate the message of Rūpa-Raghunātha and become particles of dust at the lotus feet of rūpānugas. That they should live only for Hari-bhajana and nothing else, completely ignoring the opposition and lack of appreciation. Several Sanskrit terms probably need clarification here. Aśraya-vigraha that he asks us to take shelter of (and it was a message to all aspiring devotees everywhere, not just to those present at the time) could be understood to be either guru or Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. The advaya-jñāna that we are supposed to serve is the realization of transcendental nature of Kṛṣṇa’s form, qualities, pastimes etc – that they are non-different from Kṛṣṇa Himself. It is a transcendental, fully spiritual platform as opposed to our mundane vision of duality. It doesn’t mean advaita.

Then he implores us: “Let our bodies, which are like those of aged oxen, be offered into the saṅkīrtana-yajña of Lord Caitanya and His associates.” Aged oxen were the ones that were offered in Vedic sacrifices, their bodies considered useless for anything else and fit for rejuvenation through a yajña. This is a very fitting description of our condition regardless of our age – we are no good for anything but saṅkīrtana. All our other achievements are only an illusion. Once again Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta reminds us that “..our constitutional position and all in all is to in every birth to become dust at Śrī Rūpa-Raghunātha’s lotus feet.” Note “in every birth” – he is not telling to go back to Kṛṣṇa and be done with it. Being of some use to Śrīla Rūpa and Śrīla Raghunātha Dāsa Gosvāmīs is not only superior utilization of one’s soul but our only goal, this blog’s name not-withstanding.

He also speaks of Bhaktivinoda-dhārā, which is “the line of Bhaktivinoda”. It will never stop and it is our duty to make sure it is so. He then again stresses importance of serving Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī by quoting a verse by Śrīla Raghunātha: “Taking a blade of grass between my teeth, I fall down and pray again and again to become dust at Śrīmad Rūpa’s lotus feet, birth after birth.” He can’t stress this enough – devotional service is not about making sure we are spiritually alright but it is service to our ācāryas. He doesn’t say “go play with Kṛṣṇa in any rasa you like”. That’s not our goal, it’s a proposition for the neophytes, we should know better.

Then comes the part about dealing with inconveniences and his solution is not to worry about it. We should not be overwhelmed by troubles not desire to overcome them. That’s the answer to the question why he apparently didn’t do enough to save Gauḍiyā Maṭha from disintegration. It was certainly an obstacle in the mission of Lord Caitanya but the instruction is to simply carry on with service, not aim to overcome the obstacles, which would make us attached to the result. Kṛṣṇa-sevā-rasa does not arise in those who are still concerned with attachment and detachment.

He admits that such an understanding might be baffling because every human being in this world wants to overcome various difficulties. However, as devotees our only requirement is to transcend this platform, go beyond dualities, and “enter the kingdom of eternal necessity”. Once again he reminds us: “we have no love or hatred toward anyone in this world. All arrangements made herein are but temporary.” It’s impossible to make enemies in the course of devotional service, people might think that way but they’d be wrong, and we ourselves certainly should not see anyone as our enemy, nor should we love anybody either. Not mothers, not fathers, not wives and husbands, not children – nobody. All these are only material forms covering the essence, which is that they are all sparkles of Kṛṣṇa’s energy.

In his concluding paragraph he again asks us not to feel dejected while engaged in seven-tongue flame of saṅkīrtana-yajña – a reference to seven auspicious qualities mentioned in the first verse of Śikṣāṣṭaka, and he concludes by once again imploring us to preach Rūpa-Raghunātha-kathā. He repeats the importance of this service to Rūpa-Raghunātha so many times that we should finally get it in our heads that it’s the only thing that matters in our lives. I hope it registers but we should also know how to differentiate the real service from lip service given by many pseudo-devotees, but that’s the whole other topic, extensively covered by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta himself. Just not for today.

Vanity thought #1530. Depressing death of the American Dream

Speaking of social studies, another eye catching one was published a week ago, by a Nobel Prize winner, nonetheless. Not for this study but still. It was on the suspiciously high mortality among middle aged white Americans and it was widely reported, here’s The Atlantic’s take on it.

These guys were looking at something else and noticed a strange increase in white American mortality. They investigated it further and found that it is really happening and not a fluke. It has been on the rise and, compared to the expected rates, practically doubled. Not in absolute numbers but everyone else, blacks and Hispanics, and pretty much the rest of the world, saw a significant decrease and, if you look at the charts in the article, American whites are twice as likely to die in middle age than any other group now, save for blacks.

What happened? No one knows for sure but the researches attribute it to increase in suicides and drug and alcohol poisoning. They discounted heart disease and diabetes but took note of side effects of increased drug consumption. I don’t know if it was justified and whether they missed some other possible connections but in their view it’s all due to legal drugs, like prescription medicine and alcohol. There’s also a significant rise in heroin consumption but I think it’s statistically low to affect the entire population.

Up until now everyone thought that drug abuse wasn’t a big problem, certainly not big enough to show any demographic effects but it turns out that it’s not the case anymore. They compared this increase in mortality to the effect of the AIDS epidemic, or to a sudden life expectancy drop in post-Soviet Russia.

The reasons are pretty much the same, too – people’s dreams crashed. Russians drank themselves to death, seeing their once great country going down the drain, and Americans had their inflation adjusted incomes shrink by 20% since the turn of the century.

Why whites, though? Because their expectations were unrealistically high. Hispanics can compare their present day life to what it could have been back in Latin America and they see an improvement. Blacks never had high hopes at all, nothing to be frustrated about, but white Americans were supposed to live the dream and it didn’t happen.

College educated ones are still doing okay, mortality wise, higher education still pays, I guess, but those without college degrees ruined it for the rest of the group. Perhaps in the near future debt laden graduates competing for part time jobs with fifty year olds will turn to drugs, too, who knows, but for now it hasn’t happened yet. They still have high hopes, being close to one percenters and eager to exploit income inequality for themselves.

For those who never went to college, however, life is essentially over and it won’t get better, there’s no hope. They fell through the cracks, they didn’t make it, they see themselves as losers in a society where everyone else projects only wealth and success.

Why different from the rest of the white world, especially Europe which, if you believe mainstream media, still hasn’t recovered from 2008 crisis? Because in Europe everyone’s retirement is guaranteed, thanks to socialist policies. Same whites in the US have no savings, no plan B, no comfort and safety in their future, and this drives them to drugs and suicidal thoughts.

There could also be a problem with religious disaffiliation, there are lots of studies showing that religious Americans have better health, but the authors of this one didn’t mention the correlation. It’s not difficult to find relevant studies on the subject, like this one, for example.

Depression is a big problem in itself and it affects the whole white world, not just the Americans. Recently I saw someone praising Iceland as an exemplary country where they do everything right. They jailed their bankers, for example. Some say that while the bankers are in jail, the money stolen from other countries are still in Iceland so it’s not really a perfect lesson in morality, but still, Iceland has a lot going for it on the surface and it’s one of the least religious countries in the world.

What it is the undisputed world leader, though, is in taking antidepressants. More than one in ten adults is hooked on them, more than in any other country in the world. 30% of their women over 65 are on antidepressants, everyone is taking “happy pills” all the time, twice as many as in Norway. Denmark, the other statistically happy country, is on antidepressants, too. Americans were not included in this article but they give the number of 23 million in 2010, which would make it ten percent of the white population. I would think that blacks and Hispanics do not use/can’t afford prescription drugs as much as the whites so it could be that whites are seriously depressed there and have been depressed for the past fifteen years. Consumption of these drugs has doubled.

What’s interesting in that article is that gays are twice as likely to be on antidepressants than straights. Why? I don’t know, but these past fifteen years have been very kind to them as a social group, they leaped from one victory to another. Somehow gay dream doesn’t pay off either.

You know what else has doubled since the turn of the century – the number of atheists (or “Nones”), as shown in this “Friendly Atheist” article.

Correlation doesn’t imply causation (hkcd) but it does gesture furtively while mouthing “look over there”.

Crash of the American dream is a significant step towards freeing people from the illusion of success but crash of atheism would be much more welcome. So far atheists are on the rise and they believe the future belongs to them but I think they ignore much deeper and potentially more dangerous problems, like the ones I discussed today. When these problems come to claim their toll no one would turn to atheism for solace, that’s for sure, and their rosy statistics will go down like Wall Street stock indices.

Hmm, I wonder if its true – that belief in atheism follows the same boom-bust cycle as people’s belief in stocks? Could be, but it’s beyond today’s post scope.

We shouldn’t shy away from capitalizing on people’s realization that the promised materialistic success is a mirage, now is the best time to appeal to their higher nature, otherwise they’d be too distracted by sense gratification. I bet lots of people have direct experience of these problems even if they do not admit so on the internet, or at least they personally know someone affected by these problems, so no matter their posturing, our message will get through and will make people think twice about importance of their spiritual health. They can deny God all they want, when going gets tough it will all be forgotten. We just have to make sure we delivered our message so they can remember it when the time comes. It’s not going to be in vain.

Vanity thought #1499. Debilitation

There’s a concept of exalted and debilitated planets in astrology, one of the very first things to learn. What is behind that concept is murky, however, it’s simply a list without any śāstric explanations attached. The list is a pair of signs for each planet, one is the place of its exaltation, one is the place of its debilitation, and that’s it. Whatever interpretations are there are speculative, I believe.

For all the planets these two signs are opposite in the zodiac which would imply some physical arrangement, like some astronomical sense of high and law, but that is not enough for astrologers, of course. They treat the zodiac and all the luminaries there as if it was king’s court. Each planet has its specific role and its own place. Visiting someone else’s house affects that planet’s status and ability to project power.

The Sun is the king, naturally, and Mars is his military chief. King’s strength is indisputable when backed up by the military, and so the Sun is exalted in a sign of Mars. When the king visits a courtesan, however, he tries to keep it on the down low and so the Sun is debilitated in the house of Venus. What is interesting here is that fortunes of Sun’s servant, Saturn, are directly opposite. He has no say in the house of a military commander but becomes the ultimate authority when he arranges King’s secret meetings with Venus.

The Queen has most power in her own quarters and none at all in the general’s camp where she is not in the chain of command. If the general comes to Queen’s palace, however, he’s humbled because he has to carry out the orders of a woman, hence debilitated.

In this way the whole zodiac is covered, taking into account personal relationships between the planets. The point is that everyone in this world, even the Sun-god, is limited in his powers. For everyone there are situations when things simply don’t work and everything goes wrong. As devotees we are not above these limitations either.

Reading Prabhupāda’s books we can get the impression that a devotee and devotional service are completely free from these influences but that refers only to pure devotees, not beginners like us. Nārada Muni might be free, Prahlāda Mahāraja might be free, though it could be argued that Dakṣa’s curse affected even Nārada. We are nowhere near their level and we must accept that we are totally dependent on the mercy of the material energy.

There are places in this world which are conducive to our service and there are places which aren’t. It is perfectly okay to occasionally find ourselves in a debilitating place and wish we were never there, trying to get out with all our might. We should not accept these debilitating conditions as some sort of a test of our devotion. It isn’t, maybe only to check if we have enough intelligence to extricate ourselves as fast as possible.

Unless someone is a paramahaṁsa he shouldn’t even think about staying in debilitating conditions and hoping his devotion would somehow increase. It won’t.

By places I don’t mean only physical locations, like slaughterhouses, or more likely nightclubs, casinos, and even shopping malls for westerners, I mean the entire environment encapsulating the soul. A shopping mall does not carry as much bad karma as a slaughterhouse, for example, but it’s the anticipation of sense enjoyment that we pick up from advertisements and people around us that can pollute our devotion.

A TV is not a place in a physical sense but if one turns it on and sees or hears something on the news it affects his personal environment. “I’ve seen it on TV” doesn’t mean literally on top of the TV set. Sometimes we have to avoid certain places, sometimes certain meetings, sometimes certain conversations. Just excuse ourselves and leave whenever we sense something ready to pollute our minds. Staying clean like this is absolutely essential for our progress. We can’t have it both ways, just can’t.

We can compare it to married men consorting with other women. It just doesn’t feel right, you might get some taste from flirting but it absolutely kills your emotional connection with your wife, which is very difficult to restore. Marriage usually grows several sheaths around it and things like family, house, or children can keep it standing for a while but infidelity at its very heart is nearly impossible to heal.

At first men (or women) might think that it’s not serious and simply being close to your partner once again will repair the damage but beyond a certain point it simply doesn’t work, and it makes it feel like you have to start loving the person from the square one. In many cases trying to fall in love once again doesn’t work either, especially if one has acquired the taste for someone else’s company. Even if one succeeds, the aftertaste of an affair stays with him forever, weighing on his heart. Some think confessing would make it go away but often it only makes things worse.

Same with our devotion – we should become sensitive enough to it so that we can spot a possible interference a mile away and try to avoid running into it. Still, debilitating places can sneak on you and you’ll get trapped. It happens, it must happen from time to time simply because karma. The good thing is that we won’t stay there long either, the same karma will force to move us along.

Last weekend I got sick, for example. I think it was some food poisoning or I got some unfamiliar bacteria in my gut that wrecked havoc. The main problem was that lots of toxins got released into my blood which led to increase in body temperature and headaches. At first I thought it was Kṛṣṇa’s grace, He is sending difficulties to test me, and also to absolve me from daily duties so that I could concentrate on hearing and chanting, but soon I discovered that it was not it. Sickness didn’t facilitate my attempts at service at all and it felt like I was caught in the bog of debilitation.

Śrīla Prabhupāda gave a sure fire recipe, our sādhana, and following it requires us to be healthy. Being coiled under the blankets, shaking and trembling, is not conducive to service, it’s not conducive to remembering Kṛṣṇa either. It’s a debilitating condition and it can’t be seen otherwise. It’s also a warning that thinking of Kṛṣṇa at the moment of death is not going to be easy, in fact impossible. Someone else must turn kīrtana tapes on, someone else must put pictures of Kṛṣṇa before our eyes, we ourselves won’t be in the position to do so. We can’t expect Kṛṣṇa’s personal appearance, protecting us from our troubles, we are not that kind of devotees yet, we can only hope to have some external presence of the holy name and hope we can somehow focus our consciousness on it. That’s the extent of Prabhupāda’s promise, we cannot demand any more than that and expecting anything more would be foolish and arrogant.

I beat the disease by fasting, btw, let the bacteria choke on itself and die. Somehow it worked but it’s not a solid medical advice, in many cases bacteria will still find plenty of food and needs to be treated professionally.

Vanity thought #1495. Heavy duty

Continuing with yesterday’s battery analogy, we all consider our application as heavy duty and mission critical. We cannot fail, we must be one hundred percent reliable and our service must be uninterrupted.

We leave space for our own leisure, though. Whenever we don’t feel like working we convince ourselves that we deserve a break, but if someone else comes along and tells us that our service is not needed anymore, for real, we find this unacceptable. We think we deserve breaks because of how important and valuable our service is, not because its worthless. If our lives are, indeed, worthless then we don’t deserve any pleasure whatsoever. Feeling unneeded is devastating and unbearable and free time must not be simply pleasant, it must be deserved, too. After all, we judge other people’s value and social standing by the quality of their leisure – by vacations they can afford, cars they drive, boats, and maybe even personal planes. Someone who can afford to live a life of luxury must be a very important person, we assume, without even knowing in what field.

I’m trying to resolve an apparent contradiction between people’s love of leisure with their commitment to their work and their estimate of their importance to the society. Work and service always, always come first, even for the laziest of us. Our really big attachment is to work, not to pleasure. Of course our tongues are attached to food and genitals are attached to sex but that’s not what I meant, those are simple animal urges, most people are able to restrain them for the sake of their work.

This should be obvious, btw – no one takes a day off or calls in and says he’d be late because he feels he needs to masturbate, or eat, for that matter. Our priorities here are self-evident. Work hard, then maybe play hard. “Work” here, btw, is a placeholder for any kind of duty or obligation we have. Could be taking care of the family, could be raising kids, could be helping someone in need, any situation when we are ready to put our obligations above our immediate concerns.

My point is, if someone comes along and tells us, for real, that we don’t have to do these things anymore, we won’t accept it. It won’t compute in our heads, it’s unthinkable. “What do you mean I don’t have to help children, old people, or puppies? What do you mean my mother does not need my Christmas cards? What do you mean my child doesn’t need care and attention? What do you mean my boss and my company do not require my services?” Sometimes it would appear absurd, sometimes unbelievable, sometimes possible but not applicable to us.

These things are somewhat fluid and not everyone’s life and responsibilities are the same. If at some point parents should learn to let their children go it means their duty is fulfilled, not that it was never necessary in the first place. I’m talking about OUR specific duties, they would very from person to person but I’m talking about duties applicable to each and everyone of us individually. They are sacred to us, but should they be from the perspective of Kṛṣṇa consciousness?

When one first declares himself a devotee and behaves as if he has accomplished his sarva-dharmān parityajya people do not take it very seriously. “You are too young to make such bold proclamations,” people think, “wait until you get children.” Most of the time they turn out to be right and we are unable to sustain our initial enthusiasm.

As we gradually mature in our service another realization comes along – we see our duties as given to us by guru and Kṛṣṇa, and so we justify their sanctity on the basis of our philosophy. Maybe we are right, maybe we aren’t, but everyone else around us also takes his duties very seriously, as I explained in the beginning, we are not unique here. In fact, lots of people take their duties far more seriously than us, whatever their justification is, so we won’t impress anyone at this point either. Some might say “Your Kṛṣṇa is probably not very important to you, considering how lightly you treat your service,” and they might be right.

If at this point Kṛṣṇa sent His messengers to take us back home, back to Godhead, we might suddenly realize that our commitments here are not Kṛṣṇa conscious at all and we’d give plenty of reasons why we are not ready to leave just yet and want to stay just to tie up some loose ends. It’s inconceivable to us that Kṛṣṇa might not care about all the things we consider as important and needing closure.

“I cannot die before my parents, my mother needs my help,” or “I cannot leave my children, they are dependent on me, they are not ready to be left without a parent,” or “but I’ve been working on this thing for months, how can I leave it half complete?” Excuse after excuse after excuse. Where is our Kṛṣṇa consciousness?

We could pretend not to care about all these things but whoever Kṛṣṇa sends for us will see it right through, and the worst part is lying to ourselves, so let’s try to avoid that.

Then, after many many years of practice, we should start to realize that all those things are unimportant indeed, that the world will go on without us just fine. It would partly be because of our growing spiritual knowledge, partly because of growing humility, partly because burden of our duties becomes lighter and lighter with each passing decade. Then we will start to seriously pay attention to the holy name. We’ll realize that our chanting before that was simply begging the Lord for help in our materialistic pursuits, our “sarva-dharmān”. That’s when we might seriously start to consider surrendering for real.

Ironically, as the material value of our duties starts to fade away we’d come to realize that doing these things out of duty for guru and Kṛṣṇa is actually pretty sweet. This time around we’d see it for real – we need to do these things for our own purification and enlightenment. Every little thing we do leads us to better and better service to Kṛṣṇa, and so our duties become sacrosanct again, but now legitimately so.

This will also be the time when we realize that if Kṛṣṇa doesn’t need us to do these things anymore then we can easily and happily give them up and do something else. If He wants to us to die we would die, no questions asked. Last time around we’d have declined the offer because we saw material value in our lives but now it would be gone and the only value left in our duties is the one assigned by Kṛṣṇa. If He says it’s not important then it isn’t, as simple as that, no personal attachments in play whatsoever.

And then, just to confuse us even further, Kṛṣṇa might ask us one last thing to do: “How do you feel about liberating some of those unfortunate souls, too? You don’t have to, but I’d really appreciate if you volunteered.” Assuming we still had our wits with us it would be impolite to decline, but fear not, only very few very rare souls take Kṛṣṇa up on it, statistically we should be safe, but I’m not sure how saying no would feel in this situation. Are we going to stand there hoping Kṛṣṇa won’t ask?

Bottom line, we have tons of obligations here for all kinds of reasons, some are legitimate, some are not, and, in fact, it’s only a question of our consciousness, our progress in devotional service. Whenever questions like “should I” or “do I have to” rise in our minds we should look at them from a bigger picture and not as a life and death situation. It never is, even though it usually feels like we absolutely must find the answer right this minute.

Vanity thought #1494. Neveready

I have an ongoing battle with remote control and wireless keyboards and mice batteries in my house and so I was surprised that while eveready is a household name for me it hasn’t made it into dictionaries yet. The meaning is self-evident, the usage in hyphenated form is established, I don’t know what’s missing. It’s like nevermind being spelled as one word, I guess. Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don’t, and corrections seem to be pointless.

Whenever we want to use batteries, they are ever-ready. No matter what time of the day, as long as they have some juice left, they are ready to serve, no need to boot or warm up. This should be our condition, too, but we all know we are failing here.

What makes it less poignant for us is that our service is not meant to be eternal and uninterrupted, we have time to start and time to finish and do things in certain order so if someone isn’t ready for a particular service at a particular time we don’t even notice. You’ll get into it, just start singing, praying, chanting, cleaning, whatever is it that you are supposed to be doing.

Come to think of it, this arrangement of sādhana is build around our abilities and not around demands of the Lord, who is not bound by limitations of space and time. We have a schedule from the moment we wake up until the moment we put our heads back on the pillow because that’s how it’s most convenient for us to do things. We engage in spiritual practices at suitable times, we start work when everyone else starts working, too, we eat when stomachs are primed for digestion and so on. It’s all has been laid out for us to suit our physical incarnations, we have limits like that and Kṛṣṇa can wait, time doesn’t matter to Him so we rely on His patience.

It’s a bit different with deity service because when appearing as a deity the Lord expects a certain schedule when to be bathed, clothed, and fed, and then we have to structure our lives around His preferences, but everything else is just external rules and social conventions.

Social conventions are important, don’t get me wrong. If we think brahma muhurta is just for us we are underestimating the value of its effect when amplified by congregational chanting. In any case, congregational means social, we need to find common time to chant with others, and this will mean that sometimes we aren’t going to be ready, we need to plan ahead.

I suspect this doesn’t work for Kṛṣṇa, though. Sure, He can appreciate our chanting at any time, but if we are not ready to do it on His terms it’s not in His service either. If He’d appreciate a few kind words coming out of our mouths but we are busy plotting revenge against someone then we are missing the opportunity and can’t really call ourselves servants. Nevermind, we have an excuse for this, too.

We say that Kṛṣṇa doesn’t demand a lot, in fact very little, and His demands are laid out in our sādhana. If we follow it with steadiness and without deviations it’s enough. Sooner or later the process WILL start bringing fruits. This means that we don’t consider the possibility of Kṛṣṇa wanting us to do something when, according to our sādhana, we must be on the phone or disciplining our kids. “Not now, Kṛṣṇa, I’m busy,” we think to ourselves. Actually, we don’t even think, we KNOW that we are busy and Kṛṣṇa is not supposed to disturb us now.

How much are we caught up in our lives? Do we have even a rough estimate? Save for some very special souls, our program is simple – chant, do your service, and then, at the moment of death, Kṛṣṇa will come to claim us back. That is the deal offered by Śrīla Prabhupāda and our gurus. Fine, but when is this moment of death going to be? Are we ready for it? What if it was offered right now?

Typically, when we say that we can die at any moment we mean accidents. A gas tank explosion, a car crash, that type of thing. Ideally, we should be ready for those but it’s hard to keep this kind of contingencies in our minds at all times. I’m not sure we are even supposed to carry awareness of imminent death always in our consciousness, I don’t think it’s a requirement. Whenever someone tells us about it the proposed solution is to engage ourselves in constant thinking of Kṛṣṇa so when death catches us by surprise we will be aware of Him, and in any case it will be easier to remember Him in our last seconds if our mind are used to thinking about Kṛṣṇa.

But what if death was not an accident sneaking out on you but Kṛṣṇa’s straightforward offer? Will you take it?

I can think of a couple of devotees who died unexpectedly, right on the spot in the middle of something. I don’t know what doctors ruled as the cause of their deaths, though, but it was certainly not a debilitating illness. I bet they simply recorded whatever means Kṛṣṇa used to stop their bodies from working, heart failure or something. Are we ready for this kind of death?

On paper it should be straightforward – who’d say no to Kṛṣṇa? If we think about how we would react, however, we might realize that we have tons of conditions attached. For some the first question will be “How would I look when they find me?” In this case the attachment to one’s bodily image will probably give Kṛṣṇa a clue that they are not ready to leave it yet.

Then come questions about effects of our death on people in our lives. Will they survive? Will they have enough money to go on? Will they have enough will power to go on or will my death stop them in their tracks and derail their careers? What about that person who will certainly be devastated? Will me dying be fair to him/her? Will they have to drop everything and pay through the roof to buy last minute plane tickets? What will happen to my house and my car? What will happen to my bank accounts? Should I write a will? What will happen to my twitter and facebook? Maybe I should leave my password with instructions to post my last words. I guess some are concerned about fate of their porn collection and how its discovery might affect people’s memories of them.

If any of that really bothers us then we are simply not ready to take Kṛṣṇa’s offer. Who do you think we’d be bothering for answers? Kṛṣṇa, of course, who else will be there? No one who is even slightly interested in what happens after we die.

Kṛṣṇa is all knowing, He’d just take one look at us and what He’d have to go through to assuage our worries and the offer will be off the table, not worth the trouble. If we love our lives so much and think they are so important then we should stay here a while longer.

But do we really have to? Why can’t we become ready? Is it a question of devotion? A question of knowledge? A question of detachment? A question of karma? A question of patience? A question of trust? A question of surrender?

A lot of stuff to ponder about, a lot of self-examination to administer. Maybe that’s what self-realization ultimately means, I don’t know.

Vanity thought #1333. Buddhist death

I just read an account of the death of an advanced Buddhist monk and it was fascinating. I just don’t want it to go into recesses of my memory without making some sense of it. Writing helps to internalize things and understand them better, as they say.

This is not the first time I was interested in Buddhist experiences and it somewhat worries me. They are not devotees, never will be, perhaps in some distant lifetimes in the future, if they are lucky. Their hearts know no devotion and they are indifferent towards the Lord, we shouldn’t mix with those people, and yet they are fellow transcendentalists and very often of the no-nonsense type. It just so happens that they can be trusted more than māyāvādīs from a Hindu tradition.

Buddhists can be excused from not worshiping Kṛṣṇa or Nārāyaṇa, they know nothing about Him. Māyāvādīs, otoh, are not just indifferent, they are inimical and envious. When they hear of the Lord’s pastimes they want to experience them themselves and thus accept worship from other people. Therefore their attitude are far more dangerous for us.

It would also be nice if we had similar accounts about vaiṣṇava departure but nothing comes to mind. I’ll get back to that point in a moment, first let’s deal with this Buddhist lama.

I don’t know much about Buddhist hierarchy but he appears to have been a head of one of the major Buddhist sects, exiled from Tibet and headquartered in Sikkim, quite far away from the more [in]famous Dalai Lama. There’s a wikipedia entry on him and though it doesn’t reference this particular story it still corroborates it nicely. I don’t particularly care about the rest of his life, somehow or other he achieved what could be called liberation in our terminology and that is remarkable, how he did it is not, not for devotees anyway.

The story is written by the doctor who treated him for cancer. The doctor met him three times, during the initial diagnosis, then a few months later in Hong Kong, and then he was attending during lama’s last days in one of the American hospitals.

During initial cancer diagnosis they spent a considerable amount of time, I would imagine. They ran all the tests and prepared a course of treatment. Lama wasn’t very cooperative, however. Instead of telling medical personnel where he felt pain he’d just smile and ignore them. It wasn’t annoying or anything like that but very unusual and impressed everybody there.

He just didn’t treat his disease as ordinary people would do. He didn’t display any anxiety, no fear of death, no concern for his own well-being at all. It just didn’t register with him, his mind was elsewhere.

This attitude was even more prominent during their second meeting in Hong Kong. Lama lost a a lot of weight but his attitude didn’t change a bit. It was still just another experience for him, business as usual, something you do between brushing your teeth and taking a shower. He wasn’t concerned about being on the precipice of death at all and medical stuff in Hong Kong was just as impressed as the Americans.

The third time the doctor and the lama met was during his final days in Chicago and that’s the most detailed part of the story. The attitude was the same, but this time the body was really giving up, medically speaking. They had him monitored for blood pressure and heart rate and everything they could do in those days – it was 1981. Several times it appeared that the lama was a goner but it wasn’t his body that got to decide but his spirit and on those occasions the lama would just return to consciousness and behave as if nothing had happened. He was certainly not impressed by his body’s behavior and wasn’t taking cues from it. If necessary, he would jack up his blood pressure or speed up his heart, everybody would be amazed, lama would look around say a few words, and go back to his meditation.

He refused to sign a will and appoint a successor, something that caused a split in the community afterwards which is present to this day. I wonder if there was any significance to this. Was it a conscious decision? Was it an oversight? Did he not think of it as something important? Or did he simply saw the future and went along with it?

Sometimes we assume that things are ought to be clear but the universe might have other plans. GM didn’t stay united and didn’t succeed in post-Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura time and that enabled us, the ISKCON, to develop and preserve our own identity. With all respect to senior vaiṣṇavas from GM, nothing good came out of our cooperation ever and so their relative decline helped us to stay away and spare us more trouble. Well, maybe it’s not a good argument in favor of uncertainty but in any case GM failed not against Kṛṣṇa’s wishes but according to them. Maybe that school of Buddhism is going through a similar experience, too.

Then there was the day of death. Lama’s heart stopped, he was revived again, the heart stopped again. The doctor went with chest pumps to help the blood flow anyway for almost an hour, way longer than necessary, and everyone thought it was over. Yet a few minutes later the lama came back to life.

The doctor described this moment as a final check in. The lama returned to consciousness to see if his body was any good. It wasn’t. He hang around for a few minutes, accepted that the body was useless, and died.

Except he didn’t.

Against hospital regulations they kept the body in the same ICU room for three days because Buddhist monks accompanying their master insisted that he was still in deep samādhi. The doctor spoke about a change in the atmosphere around the body but the most amazing thing was that lama’s heart was still worm even if it wasn’t beating for days. Somehow they didn’t take temperature readings but the doctor tested it manually – the heart region was warm while the rest of the body wasn’t. The skin also didn’t feel like the skin of a dead person – it was still elastic and resumed form after being squeezed. This is a similar observation to the one about the body of a Buryat lama that is presumed to be still alive and in deep samādhi at the ripe age of 170+ years I wrote about last year.

After three days the samādhi was over and the lama finally left. Rigor mortis set in and the heart went cold, there was also a change in the atmosphere in the room.

Wikipedia article linked earlier describes a few more “magical” occurrences afterwards. Between death and cremation the body shrank to the size of a child. I don’t know if it’s normal, however, and whether it means anything. On the day of the cremation there were also rainbows and unicorns and two of lama’s healthy dogs left their bodies, too. Perhaps it shows that lama’s soul was still around and only the cremation broke the last bond. What was his next destination we do not know. I’d imagine it was some place where he could continue his spiritual practices.

Was he fully liberated? Maybe not, in a sense he was still connected to the body, but it could also be understood that he kept that connection on his own will, not forced by karma and the modes of nature. His consciousness was free from regular illusion affecting all of us, that’s probably the most important aspect.

Now, could this experience be relevant to the devotees? Most of the time nothing special like that happens to us. We just leave without displaying any siddhis. If we meet Kṛṣṇa upon death, it doesn’t usually register externally. Some devotees go out with a smile but that’s about it. I think Buddhists are still people of this world and their progress is charted in relation to this reality while devotees leave this place altogether without any trace and without any residues of attachment and connection to their physical bodies. I hope that’s what happens anyway.

We’ll all find out sooner or later.