Vanity thought #890. Natural next step

What happens when we get comfortable in realization that Krishna is closer to us than our body and that we need to seek His blessings to indulge in any bodily activities?

We drop the notion that it is *our* body, of course.

Interestingly, it’s impossible to see it as not ours if we still engage in sense gratification but it becomes quite clear if the body is engaged in Krishna’s service. First part is easy – it is impossible to enjoy sensual interactions of the body with sensory objects unless we are under the influence of false ego, hence it’s impossible to enjoy and NOT think that it’s our body. Second part is trickier.

On one hand it’s the correct vision or the correct application of the body, on the other hand it’s not how we see it everyday. It’s possible to see it as Krishna’s property only in the case of absolute surrender, which is available to sankirtana devotees but usually hidden from everybody else. Theoretically, of course, there are no such restrictions but in practice surrender for us means surrender to sankirtana mission and we can’t have it any other way.

Alternatively, surrendering to sankirtana brings about self-realization and total clarity (and no interest in typing up these things on the internet). Those of us who are not on the streets with the books there’s still theory, of course, but it’s not as satisfying as the real thing and the impression doesn’t last very long.

I guess next best thing is service to the Deities and it opens up its own advantages. Sankirtana devotees see their bodies as completely out of their control but pujaris see their bodies as Vishnu’s paraphernalia. It’s easy to understand why – paraphernalia needed for the puja doesn’t stop at the handle of the ghee lamp, there’d be no puja if that lamp wasn’t attached to a hand, and if that hand wasn’t waved in the air by an arm, and if that arm didn’t have its other end attached to a body, and if that body didn’t have legs to stand on or brains to control it.

Those observing the puja can easily see that the pujari is Lord’s intimate servant. Those prescribing rules of performing puja also treat pujari as Lord’s accessory – he has to be clean externally and ritually, his mind has to be clean of all material thoughts, too. He must be properly dressed and properly decorated with tulasi necklace, shikha, and tilakas.

Once you put someone in pujari service his body ceases to be his in all practical respects, it has to live by strict rules and regulations established by the Lord.

If you ARE the pujari you also realize that you have no freedom to live your life as you want. You cannot pollute neither your body nor your mind, you cannot partake in any pleasures outside those provided as Lord’s prasadam, you cannot freely choose your life partner, your place of residence, you are stripped of all your other rights, too. Your body exists only for the pleasure of the Deity, no one else.

This certainly helps to convince our mind and intelligence that this body is NOT ours and that it should be treated with respect awarded to Lord’s intimate servants or Lord’s paraphernalia. If we are sincere in our chanting we would also see that none of this we deserved ourselves and that it is all arranged by Krishna Himself, following our prayers to be engaged in His service.

If we are sincere it would be easy for us to see that we are not, indeed, our body and that bodily engagements in material interactions are solely for the pleasure of the Lord, not our own. With this mindset we can also learn that the source of our sustenance is not our body but its engagement in service. Body serves Krishna, Krishna is happy, and this makes us satisfied, too.

When we have a clear vision like this bodily aches don’t bother us anymore. If the lamp is too heavy and the arm loses power to waive it it’s not OUR arm we are talking about, it’s Krishna’s, so we do not take this pain personally, even though we can sense that it’s there.

It’s not pain all around, of course, but if we decide to participate in experiencing bodily pleasures for ourselves the vision will be gone in an instant, only a memory would remain and even that not for a long time, so we better cherish these rare moments of clarity. It’s in these moments that we can easily understand such lines from the scriptures as na yatra dambhīty abhayā virājitā – there exists a supreme reality, in which the illusory energy cannot fearlessly dominate, thinking, “I can control this person because he is deceitful.” (SB 12.6.30)

Maya can easily overcome us because she “can freely exert her influence over those who are hypocritical, deceitful and disobedient to the laws of God”, as explained in the purport. Disobedience is easy to observe, considering standards of renunciation expected from real devotees, but hypocrisy and deceit is not something we notice in our lives very often. Maybe we should, considering dictionary definition of a hypocrite: a person who feigns some desirable or publicly approved attitude, especially one whose private life, opinions, or statements belie his or her public statements.

Every time we decide to enjoy activities of our bodies, be it eating, sleeping, or even breathing, we belie our pledge of surrendering all our lives to Krishna and no one else. We know that this body is meant to be pleasing to Krishna at all times but we quietly decide to take it for a nap or for a snack, or to even simply put it down in a comfortable chair.

The instruction that we should be asking permission before commencing any of those activities can come very useful here. We might get our permissions fairly easily but the thought that it’s not our body to take for a joy ride would eventually etch into our very beings. Therefore it’s much better to remember to ask than just take the body our for a spin, or we might get the wrong idea that it’s actually ours.

Vanity thought #861. Govindam adi purusham

I think this is by far our most presentable prayer. Of course Hare Krishna is our signature mantra but it also comes loaded with people’s preconceptions when they hear it. Anything from cult to nostalgic memories, everyone’s got an opinion already. Govindam adi purusham, however, is clean.

George Harrison’s arrangement is decidedly non-Indian, words are not in English, they don’t sound like any language people know but they are sung by English speaking people so there’s no association with any particular accent and there’s no particular culture to attach this sound to. It’s clean, not to mention it’s beautiful, and that’s why I think it’s our most presentable prayer.

Being so culture neutral it can pop up in unexpected places, like as a soundtrack to figure skating routine a few years ago. On my phone I set it as a ringtone for some special calls or alarms and when it goes off in public I’m often being asked what tune it is, its beauty being so difficult to dismiss.

For devotees it’s also associated with the most special moments in our sadhana – Deity greetings. Everyone primes himself up for these couple of minutes and mouths out the words as the song fills the temple room and tears well up in almost everybody’s eyes. No other moment is so emotionally charged as this. Well, in my opinion anyway.

Having said that, it’s not without controversy. For starters, the music was written by George Harrison, not much of a devotee at that time. Certainly he was very kind and generous to Srila Prabhupada and our movement but he wasn’t following principles or chanting sixteen rounds. He has never been initiated, too.

The singing is by a woman, which is no big deal these days but we’ve never read about women singers in Lord Chaitanya’s parties. At one point devotees from some temple sent a question to Srila Prabhupada asking if it’s appropriate for them, as brahmacharies, to listen to woman’s singing. It was serious matter for them and it was delivered to Srila Prabhupada in person through a messenger. He, of course, had none of it. If it was good for Krishna Balarama temple in Vrindavana then it was good for any other temple, too, he said, it was a standard for all Deity greetings in ISKCON and there would be no changes. This singing is transcendental, I don’t know anyone who is agitated by it.

Similarly, the question about George Harrison not being initiated is a pedantic one. He was recognized as a devotee by Srila Prabhupada and so he became a part of Krishna’s family, as per meaning of dikṣa I discussed in this post. Name and beads do not make one into a devotee, it’s just a formality, a ritual, a part of sadhana bhakti. Being accepted as a devotee by a vaishnava is all that matters.

Another question is about the content of the prayers themselves. Strictly speaking, it’s a kind of rasabhasa – no one in Vrindavan worships Krishna as the original purusha, there’s no such rasa among devotees of Vraja.

The answer to this is that it is not sung by a devotee in Vrindavan, it is sung by an outsider looking in – Lord Brahma. He is the leader of our sampradaya and so his particular mellow of the worship to the Lord sets the mood for the rest of us – outsiders looking in, very rupanuga like, never feeling themselves qualified to render service directly. There are stories of Lord Shiva sneaking into the rasa dance but we never hear anything like this about Lord Brahma, in our sampradaya we don’t strive to be so close to the Lord, we are servants of the servants of the servants, humbly offering whatever we can from our designated position, which is exactly where Krishna wants us.

This, however, also means that we are not worshiping Govinda of Vraja, despite saying the prayers ourselves, not directly anyway. There are glorious descriptions of Krishna and His abode in that Brahma Samhita but I often found them meaningless. I have no clue what a land made of spiritual gemstones look like. I find our local gems rather disappointing and I can’t tell them from pieces of colored glass, I think I can imagine an entire land made of such gems but it would look weird and not impressive at all.

I can try to imagine what millions of surabhi cows look like but then there was one occasion where Srila Prabhupada in all seriousness declared cows as not beautiful. So, millions of rather dull looking, clumsy animals? Means nothing to me.

We often dismiss Islam as having an impersonal concept of God but there’s something to say for their idea that image of God cannot be described in ordinary language or drawn by ordinary hands. It isn’t their particular idea either, it’s the argument of Shankarites, too – whenever we try to assign personal features to God we limit Him by our own perceptions. I don’t know what should be exact language here – personal features of Krishna exists whether we describe Him or not but when we do try to describe God we always do it through the prism of our experience, so the charge against us is reasonable.

We can say that our renditions are authorized because they follow authoritative descriptions given by personalities who HAVE seen Krishna, like the ones from Brahma Samhita. We can say that our renditions are authoritative because they’ve been approved by Srila Prabhupada, too. Saying that, however, does not remove the touch of our conditioning.

In my own perception Deities are usually okay but maybe that’s because they are made by people whose cultural biases I don’t recognize. Drawings by westerners, however, always remind me of someone else. We tend to draw Krishna as complying with our own cultural standards of beauty or attractiveness.

These two images, for example, are apparently correct and they present Krishna as He is described in our books but the one done in manga style reminds of all the pathos of Japanese cartoons while the other looks like a cross between Krishna and Maugli (not the Disney one) with a touch of fascination with Twilight and vampires.

In modern parlance we can say that Krishna is sexy and I guess this is what “sexy” looks like to modern women.

I might be completely off in my judgment here but I can say it with certainty – I don’t worship Govinda that looks like this. Which one I worship? I don’t know, that’s why I’m saying that descriptions in Brahma Samhita are meaningless to me.

Even Deities usually take some time to get used to, and some will never look truly beautiful to me. It doesn’t mean that it’s Krishna’s fault for not presenting Himself properly and not being all attractive because here is the crux – Deity greetings are not for us to look at Krishna, it’s for Krishna to look at us. If we do not appreciate His beauty it’s our fault, it’s us who come contaminated and pre-conditioned and unable to appreciate His attractiveness.

Krishna is not the Lord of Kali Yuga, He never aims to captivate the hearts of demons and materialists, He is only interested in loving exchanges with His dearmost devotees. We can’t demand the same sweetness extended to us, we are outside the circle, looking in.

For the foreseeable future this could be out “eternal” position so we better get used to it.

Vanity thought #658. Body of bliss?

It’s half way through the year until the next month of Damodara lila but I’ve just came across a verse from Bhagavatam that made me look at it in a new way, and I think I know why – Srila Prabhupada gave it a slightly different translation when it appeared in Chaitanya Charitamrita (Madhya 19.205)

Although Kṛṣṇa is beyond sense perception and is unmanifest to human beings, he takes up the guise of a human being with a material body. Thus mother Yaśodā thought Him to be her son, and she bound Lord Kṛṣṇa with rope to a wooden mortar, as if He were an ordinary child.

Compare this to the Bhagavatam translation (SB 10.9.13-14) that takes two verses together:

The Supreme Personality of Godhead has no beginning and no end, no exterior and no interior, no front and no rear. In other words, He is all-pervading. Because He is not under the influence of the element of time, for Him there is no difference between past, present and future; He exists in His own transcendental form at all times. Being absolute, beyond relativity, He is free from distinctions between cause and effect, although He is the cause and effect of everything. That unmanifested person, who is beyond the perception of the senses, had now appeared as a human child, and mother Yaśodā, considering Him her own ordinary child, bound Him to the wooden mortar with a rope.

The effect on me was strikingly different even if two versions say basically the same thing.

Krishna “takes up the guise of a human being with a material body”. Is that a body of bliss? Does it look like body of bliss?

We are always taught that His body is transcendental. When we remember this pastime we talk how Mother Yashoda couldn’t tie Him and her rope was always two fingers short. We also remember how she once looked into His mouth and saw the entire universe inside.

All through the Krishna book Srila Prabhupada convinces us about Krishna’s unique powers. How He could kill all those demons, how He could mess with Brahma by taking forms of all His cowherd friends and so on.

Elsewhere we are also constantly taught about transcendental nature of Krishna’s body. How His every limb cab perform functions of any other. How He can taste our offerings with His eyes and so on.

As a result I’ve come to think of Krishna’s body only as a fountain of magic and bliss and nothing less than that.

What Mother Yashoda saw, however, was a little naughty boy with sweat on his face, his maskara smeared all over by his tears, his feet were dirty and there was probably dirt under his toenails, too. I’m also sure his head smelled like that of an ordinary boy who played several hours in the sun (not of milk and cookies). I bet there was snot running down from his nose, too, and if it wasn’t “my” boy I wouldn’t have touched him with a pole.

There’s nothing transcendental or blissful about Krishna when His intimate devotees look at Him. This “transcendence” is only to impress devotees either on material platform or in shanta and dasya rasas on Vaikunthas. There’s no “transcendence” in Vrindavana.

Somehow universe in Krishna’s mouth didn’t register with Mother Yashoda and His friends weren’t very impressed with Krishna holding Govardhana on His little finger for a week.

It didn’t look transcendental to them, nothing out of the ordinary.

So, is this what we are all striving for – stop seeing the Lord as having an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-blissful body? Looks so.

What has it got to do with us, however?

Deities, I think.

When we serve Deities with love and devotion we should stop thinking of Deity’s transcendence and magical awesomeness but accept that for His servants the Lord appears as doll of metal, just as He appears as a human child to Mother Yashoda.

That is not to say we should deviate from the mood of worship Srila Prabhupada had taught us but to realize that “awesome transcendeness” is not something we can’t see but should revere nevertheless. That faulty approach leads to thinking of Deity’s arms as mere symbols of Lord’s actual arms, ie we treat the Deity as an idol.

We can’t think of Deity’s arms as being material either. What to do?

Maybe we should reconsider what matter and spirit means. We assume that matter is something we can touch and spirit is something invisible and beyond our senses, but Deity is here, we can touch it if we are authorized and trained to do so, yet it’s not material.

And we should probably reconsider what “body of bliss” means, too. The Lord is blissful and when we serve Him we also feel bliss, yet this bliss doesn’t register on our skin when we touch the Deity, it’s felt inside our hearts, if we are pure enough.

That means that if we ever manifest external symptoms of bhava they won’t come from seeing or touching the Deity or the feet of our guru, it would come from inside our hearts. They won’t start in the tips of our fingers and spread from there.

What I’m getting to is that it’s not the bliss we can feel with our material senses so the word has no meaning to us on our current platform, so it’s better not to worry about it for now.

It’s going to be awesome and very different, that’s all, and it shouldn’t be our motivation for service. Mother Yashoda does not roll on the ground in ecstasy and that shouldn’t be our goal, too.

Vanity thought #618. With difficulty

What is it that makes people build temples on hill tops all over the world? It’s not so prominent in ISKCON but maybe that’s because we open our temples wherever we can find urban property, and it’s not so prominent with Krishna’s temples, too, but still there are some like that even in Vrindavana – Madan-Mohan, for example, or Gopal temple at Govardhan.

Somehow people assume that visit to a Deity should entail some personal sacrifice, it should be difficult, and one should not come empty handed. Why is that? Does it have any shastric or philosophical basis? Coming with a small gift is understandable, it’s just good etiquette, but why some temples have thousand step long staircases?

In Buddhism perfection is achieved through a tremendous personal effort so it easily explains why seekers of truth need to climb high up the mountains, but what about more merciful deities? Is the difficulty of access determined by the those who build them or by God Himself?

I can’t imagine Lord Chaitanya appearing in an inaccessible place, doesn’t mesh with His mission at all. Not so much with Krishna, too, and all His main temples are smack in the middle of towns. Puri is even build around the temple of Jagannath. Vishnu, however, is a more traditional deity, as so is Shiva, one doesn’t come to them with love but with awe and respect and so a little difficulty in attending might show the value the visitor places on the object of his worship.

In modern Christianity this doesn’t make sense, it’s all about Jesus serving his congregation, but in medieval times most famous monasteries were hid in the highest mountains, too.

How to achieve proper balance between the need for preaching and easy accessibility and the fact that God cannot be approached without making sacrifices, the ultimate of which is giving your whole life. We make Hare Krishna mantra available to all without any screening or requirements, even Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami didn’t disclose it in Chaitanya Charitamrita, but can we do the same thing with our Deities? I don’t think so.

I see it like that – everyone must have a chance to serve the Holy Name but only those who serve the Holy Name should be allowed a chance to serve Deities.

Being in the presence of Deities is not the same as hearing the Holy Name. There are too many rules and there are serious offences, some practically unforgivable within this lifespan.

Preaching centers should be everywhere and they can all invite Sri Sri Gaura Nitai as presiding Deities but “real” temples, with Radha and Krishna, should have some sort of screening for the general public. A few weeks ago some devotees complained about karmi marriage ceremonies being held in one of our most prominent temples in front of Radha Krishna and Srila Prabhupada, I think they have very legitimate grounds for these protests.

The very name of Srimati Radharani should not be said in front of non-devotees, what to speak of staging sex-enjoyment shows in the presence of Her Deity. Okay, they didn’t have sex in the temple but let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what karmi marriages are for, and they were seeking blessings for that abominable activity from Radha and Krishna.

I don’t know what to say, I see no excuses.

We are not on the platform of loving service, we install Radha and Krishna but we worship them in the mood of Laksmi Narayana and so we should behave with awe and reverence in their presence, and we should make appropriate sacrifices to obtain their audience.

It should be done with appropriate difficulty. Their Lordships like when their subjects work hard to earn Their favors.

Vanity thought #311. Jaipur

Yesterday I caught a movie about a group of elderly Englishmen who chose to retire in India. Despite this very encouraging premise the plot turned into a disaster. These people, on their last legs, went to India in search of their boyhood crash, a new sexual partner and a new job.

Imagine what opportunities they had there to learn something about the purpose of their lives. They’ve got bits of Indian wisdom here and there and one of them actually went to a couple of temples but both these westerners and their Indian hosts were mercilessly squandering the opportunities of the human form of life in one of the most glorious places in the whole country – Jaipur.

When I heard that they were going there I was so excited, not for them, for myself. I’ve never been there and the chance to see the deities worshiped by the Goswamis of Vrindavana tickled my soul. It was a very brief moment, however, because I soon realized that even if I went there I would only have seen a few idols decorated in nice dresses and flowers.

At first I imagined going to Jaipur and seeing Krishna but then I realized I wasn’t going to see Him at all. He wasn’t going to show Himself to me and has no interest in seeing me either.

Finally, the things I’ve been preaching to myself for a while are starting to get hold now.

We are not the subjects and Krishna is not the object for our senses. It’s the other way around, He is there to see us and so unless invited we have no real business going to Jaipur to “see” Him. I got that plus the understanding that seeing the deity is not the same as having Krishna reveal His form in our hearts.

No doubt a trip to Jaipur would have been supremely beneficial, first as one of the best methods of sadhana bhakti and second as the opportunity to get noticed by the Lord but we still can’t force Krishna to bestow His mercy on us simply by going to places like Jaipur, Vrindavan or Mayapur. We go there but we don’t get there, we just lick the jar of honey from the outside.

Granted, it’s probably the closest we get to the honey in this lifetime and this is not a small feat for one lifetime already but still it’s no cigar.

Krishna and all the places of His residence are eternally present in His Holy Name. We don’t need to travel thousands of miles to see what is already so close, we can’t force the Holy Name to disclose its glories by mere traveling, especially if all we are going to see there is the same old eating, sleeping, mating and defending.

Having said that, if the Lord arranges for us to go and visit Him there we should absolutely get up and go without any reservations. Hmm, okay, we can make reservations but it’s not what I mean.

Vanity thought #264. Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Childhood.

As I said earlier, Svalikhita Jivani provides a comprehensive account of Bhaktivinoda Thakur, or Kedar, as he was called then, childhood years. It’s impossible to follow all the names, places, schools and teachers mentioned there, and maybe it’s not the point and not the most interesting part.

I’m sure it had a great deal of meaning to his son, Lalita Prasad, for whom the book was originally written, but for us it provides enough material to form a picture of young Kedar so we can ponder his “before” and “after” transofrmation. Despite what it is said on some websites, young Kedar and the acharya we now know as Bhaktivinoda Thakur look like two different people. Why? And how did that transformation take place? This is what interests me here.

From Bhagavad Gita we know that devotees who couldn’t reach perfection are born again in either wealthy or religious families to make the completion of their task easier. We probably can’t apply this reason to Bhaktivinoda Thakur, for all we know, he was an eternally liberated soul who appeared on this Earth with a particular mission, not as a consequence of his previous failures or achievements.

This raises a question, though – if he was a nittya-siddha, why did he have no idea of his position during his early years? Of if he knew he was “special” all along, why is it not reflected in his autobiography?

If he was a nittya-siddha the circumstances of his birth and his childhood can’t be used as an example of Krishna guiding a soul to perfection, all Krishna needed was to put him in the right time and place, how he got there was not important. Having said that, I think we should still broadly look at circumstances of Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s appearance.

Generally speaking, he was born into a kayastha family, which is question to our modern day proponents of varnashrama – what exactly is a kayastha? It looks as if vedic varnashrama was far more complicated than the usual four classes and all we need now is to shoehorn everyone into those four classes and everything will be fine. But what about kayasthas? How many more classes, sub-classes and divisions we don’t know about yet?

A thousand years ago one Bangali ruler imported five brahmana families and their servants to improve local genetic pool. Bengali kayasthas are descendants of those servants. Technically they were supposed to be shudras but due to their close association with brahmanas they demanded a better position and it was given. The whole story is a bit more complicated than that but for our purposes let’s just settle that Kedar’s father and mother came from the families which can be traced back to the original kayasthas and that they were considered quite important and respectable, though they both went into a rapid decline, allowing Kedar to catch only the tail end of their previous glory.

That decline was mainly due to unfortunate land dealings, his paternal grandfather was losing wealth by the minute and so Kedar had to grow up in his maternal grandfather’s house, which was somewhat against the tradition. Maternal grandfather was a large landholder once, collecting the rent to maintain himself, but the taxes eventually destroyed him. When Kedar was twenty his family was practically penniless and he had to take care of the remaining elders himself. All his siblings had died, too, so he was the only child left to continue the family legacy and he didn’t disappoint, as we all know now.

So, if Krishna put him in that family it wasn’t to advance the material prosperity, it was just to protect Kedar from poverty and associated ills that could have been unfavorable to his future. He got just enough education to make it big in Calcutta and then the tap was turned off. That would have been a great lesson on how Krishna always protects his devotees and provides them with everything they need and nothing they could misuse, but if Bhaktivinoda Thakur is a nittya-siddha then none of it matters, he didn’t need poverty to succeed, he didn’t need wealth to succeed either.

His family was definitely religious but, despite having some prominent vaishnava devotees among his ancestors, they were engaged in Durga worship instead. In fact the name of the village, Ula, comes from a huge annual Durga festival, they called her Ulia Chandi there. Kedar loved those festivals, he loved the food, the decorations, the performances – everything, and Bhaktivinoda Thakur spared no details describing them. In those days one maintained his family’s prestige by holding bigger festivals than others and his maternal grandfather borrowed heavily to keep up with the Joneses.

As I said earlier, despite all these religious festivals young Kedar had no idea what Deities were and how they were related to the people and the world. He thought some people could talk to them and once he asked a man looking after their family temple if Deities talked back – “No, they don’t, they don’t talk to people in Kali-Yuga,” was the reply.

This is interesting, we grow in a Western society, well, most of us, and we first learn about the concept of idol worship, then we see the actual idols and identify them as such. Then we learn about murti-vigraha and Krishna consciousness, but that’s besides the point – for young Kedar the Deity was something he saw everyday since he was born but he had no idea how to classify that thing and what to expect of it. He just bowed down and offered oblations like everyone else, naturally and joyfully, but had no clue what was actually happening. We, on the other hand, know how it works but have to force ourselves to bow or offer anything, it’s part of our vaidhi sadhana, not part of our nature. I can see now why being born in India is really a blessing.

Another point – every time Bhaktivinoda Thakur writes about returning home he casually and naturally talks about anticipation of seeing the feet of his mother. Who among us thinks of feet first when see our parents? It’s not natural for us, it was natural for him. There’s nothing revealing about his devotion to Krishna or Lord Chaitanya here, everyone was just like him and didn’t achieved anything worth mentioning, but the attitude is still amazing.

BUT, I agreed not to treat Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s birth as a reward for his previous lives, which is a kind of bummer.

Then there was school, or rather schools, as he changed too many of them to count. He started learning from the age of three or four but from his descriptions it was pretty basic stuff, and they were made to memorize things first, think about them later. Not terribly efficient by modern day standards. There was no skills development or hands on learning, just repeat after me, write down a hundred times, and better remember it when I ask.

Some of his teachers were awful, one was beating kids with a stick and when he wasn’t around he officially employed older kids to bully youngsters on his behalf. He also regularly asked for donations and he asked to bring them secretly, basically steal little things for him here and there, parents weren’t supposed to know.

Other teachers were better but none was too inspiring, Kedar himself had a whimsical attitude to studying, sometimes he was first in class (of five), sometimes pride got to him and he didn’t think he needed to make an effort, sometimes he failed miserably and had to change schools again. It was all basically in search of inspiration, if he didn’t find in one place, he moved to another. Another curiosity – his first English teacher was actually French.

Through the years it became clear that Kedar was useless at math but very fond of literature and poetry, and it was poetry and philosophy that eventually made him a young star later in Calcutta, but let’s save it for another day.

Vanity thought #249. Vamshidas Babaji Part 5.

All of the stories I mentioned so far are pretty innocent, even if some of them, or even most of them didn’t make it into HH Bhaktivikasa Swami’s “official” biography it doesn’t matter at all. There are stories that are tad more disturbing, though, and I want to try and deal with them today.

First, the deities. We know that Vamshidas had very intimate relationships with them and his whole life as an embodied soul revolved around feeding them and making garlands and talking to them. Normally I would capitalize pronouns referring to any form of God but when talking about Vamshidas it seems a bit out of place. From our position they should be capitalized without exceptions but from Vamshidas’ POV it would go against his own mood of communicating with them – sometimes he chastised and even punished them, for him they were his little children he had to take care of, capitalization was not on the books. More on that later.

There’s one apocryphal story that really tests the boundaries here. No one knows how it really went down and the only part that people could see for themselves was the end, no one knows how it started and what were the actual reasons. I still think there’s no big harm in telling it as long as we understand that it might all be just a concoction. I want to make a point that no one should try to judge a devotee like Vamshidas by looking at his external actions alone.

Anyway, Vamshidas was born in a fishing family and one time when he was residing in Navadvipa a woman selling fish passed by him and Vamshidas got attracted by the smell and he wanted to taste it too. When he realized what has happening to him he got really really pissed off. He didn’t give in to his weakness but he was very angry that he still had to experience the material attraction to eating corpses of dead animals. He thought it was the fault of his deities and he directed all his anger towards them and nobody else. His reasoning was that he surrendered his life and soul to them and they were supposed to protect him from all kinds of temptations but they failed, they left him all alone to face maya and her illusory attractions. It wasn’t a fair fight, no living entity should ever think of taking on maya all by himself, we can avoid her clutches only by Krishna’s mercy and in Vamshidasa’s view Krishna failed to keep his end of the bargain.

He grabbed his deities, tied a rope around them and threw them into the Ganges. He put his foot down on the end of the rope and didn’t let anyone come near. People gathered around him, everybody was agitated and they tried to pacify Vamshidas but he threw rocks at anyone who dared to come into his view with any questions.

After this episode Srila Bhaktisiddhanta forbade any of the brahmacharies in his ashram to go and visit Vamshidas again. He said that they couldn’t understand his bhava and so it would be better for them not see this kind of things.

That wasn’t the only time when Srila Bhaktisiddhanta gave such an order. Once a brahmachari who thought that Vamshidas was mistreating his deities secretly took Gaura Nitai to Gaudiya Math temple at yoga-pith. When Srila Bhaktisiddhanta saw it he immediately told the devotee to take the deities back before Vamshidas discovered that they were missing, before he unscrewed that brahmachari’s head or something.

This is an interesting point. On one hand I think anybody would agree that brahmachari was clearly wrong, that he didn’t understand special relationships Vamshidasa had with his deities. That is fine, but I also think that our own understanding might be far from perfect here and we might not be in the position to judge that brahmachari at all. Generally speaking, our ISKCON Deities are worshiped in the mood of Vaikuntha, with a lot of awe and reverence, not to mention opulence. That’s in the temples, what goes on in our own lives is a bit different. We have no problems with offering food in our minds or in less than perfect conditions, we don’t give much attention to the rules and regulations, thinking that simply chanting Hare Krishna is enough. If we are engaged in any kind of preaching than rules just go out of the window, Deities’ interests become subservient to the needs of the preaching mission, these are our priorities.

Eventually we develop a sense of familiarity, we think we understand Vamshidasa’s relationships with his deities pretty well, we get it. Well, to this I would say that what we get is how to play dolls with Krishna, nothing more. Anyone can play dolls, it’s not difficult to imagine having running conversations with little Gopal or with naughty Gauranga. I think that if we saw the deities for what or who they really are we would be struck speechless, no games, just dandavats and opulent offerings without raising our eyes above Lord’s lotus feet.

Our problem is that we don’t really understand the position of God and our own insignificance before Him and thus we don’t think it unacceptable to offer uncooked and unripe eggplants, for example, we think Krishna can’t tell the difference, it makes no difference to us anyway, as long as we claim the food is offered with devotion.

That unfortunate brahmachari, on the other hand, could have sensed God’s greatness and so he couldn’t bear anything disrespectful towards God’s manifestations as Deities. “What devotion! We are talking about serving GOD here, don’t you get it?” No, we don’t get it, it’s just a doll, we think, if you say you offer with devotion “it” will accept it, there’s nothing special here. Perhaps that brahmachari was miles ahead of us in God’s realization.

While I am on this rant, perhaps we read Krishna book and enjoy how Mother Yashoda was chasing baby Krishna for stealing butter and yogurt and we think – that’s exactly what I want, I want to be like her, I want to be greater that God. Well, here is the way – read more of these stories and chant the mantra and tell this to everybody you meet. I don’t know where it will lead us, however.

When people look at the history of our movement they immediately notice that many of our members come from disenfranchised classes, hippies and such. I myself wasn’t a top dog when I bought my first book. I can’t speak for everybody but would it be blasphemous to suggest that people who had nothing got attracted to Krishna because they saw the way to get everything? We might not have had any interest in what the society had to offer us at that time and we searched for better ways to express our greed. Working the socks off to become a boss of some dull, stuck up company wasn’t for us, but becoming the boss of God Himself – that was much more interesting, that got our attention.

Of course our hearts get cleansed during the process but if we still have this hidden desire to boss Krishna around we won’t get anywhere near Him. I, for one, sometimes have serious misgivings about my true motives. Maybe I don’t want to be the boss, maybe I can settle on being an equal, I’ll take it, as long as I don’t have to worship in reverence or anything like that. I can offer obeisances for a while, fine, but as soon as I get what I want Krishna can forget about it. I can’t deny I prefer offering Krishna food on my own plate to serving on a special set. I also prefer someone else doing cooking and offering, I’m fine with “respecting” only.

There, I said it. Now what? When will I ever get rid of this nonsense in my heart? I don’t know.

Tomorrow is another day.

Vanity thought #248. Vamshidas Babaji Part 4.

Yesterday I finished with the story of Vamshidasa’s deities giving away cooking pots to thieves and getting punished, I forgot the ending – after forcing first Nitai and then Gauranga to make the thieves bring the pots back Vamshidasa felt very sorry. He told his deities: “I don’t want to punish you but you are so naughty and you like to tease me and now I’m so old and tired, what can I do?”

When people told him about locking the house instead he said that he did, he had three keys and he gave them to Nitai, Gaura, and Gadadhara. If they wanted to let everyone inside it was their decision, not his.

He ran into stealing problems many many times and his reaction was always the same – his deities were responsible, they were little thieves themselves and they loved the Nadiyavasis and they liked giving things away.

People used to bring him lots of fruit, usually he left it in the pile outside for the local cow to come and eat it but sometimes he kept the bananas and if they weren’t ripe he used to hang them on the rafters. Rats also wanted the bananas and they were devising the ways to get them but Vamshidasa never said a word. Once he pointed at a rat and said “Look, a thief!” he then pointed at Krishna and said “He is also a thief!”

Once someone wanted to donate twenty-five paisa to Vamshidasa’s servant and that was a lot of money at that time so the guy changed his mind on the spot and demanded change. Vamshidasa, who was just standing there quietly, suddenly got very angry: “You cannot do that! If you give money to Mahaprabhu you cannot ask for change, once you give it to Him you cannot take it back.”

I should say here that the way Vamshidasa collected donations was simply standing outside the house and calling “Gaura Nitai, Gaura Nitai”, people then would come out and offer rice, fruit of vegetables. therefore giving any change back meant taking money from Gauranga Himself and that was unthinkable. He also avoided houses of people who didn’t have any respect for Gaura-Nitai, he didn’t take anything from non-devotees.

So, back to the twenty-five paisa story. After fighting off the change challenge they returned to the kutir but later in the day they discovered that someone still managed to steal the money. Vamshidasa’s servant was very upset about it but the babaji took a philosophical approach. “Money is like hair, it grows, you cut it, and then it grows again.” Then he ended with his usual “Gauranga wanted to give this money to someone else, it’s his decision”.

At other times he got angry, though. If a cow entered the kutir and turned everything upside down he pinned it on his deities and chastised them heavily using very harsh words. In the end he would say “Okay, up to you, you love your Nadiyavasis, Vamshi has no right to be angry – Vamshi is just an outsider here.”

Once the deities got into real trouble. Someone donated a golden necklace for Gauranga and it got stolen. Vamshidasa was really upset about it, he was talking and complaining about it for hours until he forced the deities to confess who they were given it to. Immediately he went to the house of that person and demanded the necklace back. This is where there are two very different endings. According to one ending people heard the commotion and gathered outside, the thief denied any wrongdoing but under the pressure of Vamshidasa and the crowd who supported the sadhu he was forced to return the gold. In another version there were no onlookers and the thief angrily pushed Vamshidasa off his verandah and Vamshidasa was really hurt. He returned home empty handed but Gaura couldn’t tolerate mistreatment of His devotee and the thief and all his family soon died.

Let me offer a speculation on what exactly had happened there. I think Gauranga wanted the guy to have the necklace, somehow he deserved it, but when Vamshidasa started pressing Him He didn’t want to disclose that person’s identity because He knew that it won’t end well, that the guy wasn’t going to return the gold peacefully. He didn’t want the fight, he didn’t want to push that soul into vaishnava aparadha but he couldn’t refuse Vamshidasa either, and that’s why this story didn’t have a happy ending.

I guess Krishna knows our capacities very well and protects us from walking into a trap of maya, saving us form making offenses out of our immaturity, ignorance and greed. One more reason to leave all planning to Him and be very skeptical about our own desires.

Last time I mentioned that Vamshidasa didn’t follow any schedule in his deity worship, he would spend half a day collecting food and flowers and another half cleaning and preparing it. Once, however, his servant saw him cooking at nine o’clock in the morning. “Why don’t you offer them food for breakfast everyday?” he asked. “I’m not their father’s servant,” Vamshidasa answered, “I don’t know morning from evening and I’m not going to cook on their schedule. If they want it they can make their own arrangements”. Then he described how it could be done – let Gadadhara cook for Gauranga, Nitai is an avadhuta, he doesn’t care for time and he can eat anywhere. Gopala will survive, too – everyday we have a cow visiting the kutir, Gopal can get milk from her, but it’s Radha and Krishna that need to be fed otherwise they’d go to Vrindavan to do madhukari. This way Vamshidas figured it all out.

There were a lot of “pastimes” involving food. I put pastimes in quotes because it looks like games to us but for Vamshidasa it was a way of life. Once he refused to feed Krishna arguing that he already had his desert out of turn and so didn’t deserve a proper meal. Devotees from Gaydiya Math decided to check Vamshidasa’s story and wrote a letter to Radha Ramana temple in Vrindavan and got a reply that Krishna was indeed offered sweet rice with gur on that particular day at that particular time.

Sometimes cooking took him so long time that his deities became restless. He then shouted at them to get out of the house and wait outside. On another occasion he was outside himself but suddenly declared that the “boys” were hungry. He collected some unripe eggplants and ran home where he put them in a coconut hust, added some water and tulasi and offered to his deities. He then relished this uncooked food himself.

Once he turned to his servant and asked – “Did you hear what Gaura had just said?” Of course the servant didn’t hear anything, only Vamshidasa himself could hear what his deities were telling him. “Gauranga told me not to go outside for three days because I’m old and that He would bring food for me instead. Did you hear that? He wants to serve me! I swear I will break his legs if he tries to do that.” That threat worked, apparently.

On another occasion, on Janmashtami, Vamshidasa was telling Gopal about his special treat for his birthday. “Last year you had palm fruit and this year you will get mango! Just be patient, mango is coming.” Krishna was born at midnight, remember, where was he going to get the mango at that time? In ten minutes, however, a local brahmana arrived and told everyone about a dream he just had – some sadhu wanted a mango and so he had to wake up and get it for him.

I’m probably missing some sweet stories here but that is all I got for today. I’m preparing myself for some really controversial stuff tomorrow, God willing.

Last Sunday burglars broke into our neighbors’ house and stole some stuff. The part that really bothers me is that during the break in I was less than twenty meters away and the backdoor of our house was open, I think I even heard the noise but I though it was neighbors themselves, it wasn’t any louder than the usual sound of their door. Those guys cut through two locks and a bolt and I didn’t suspect a thing. I couldn’t see them from where I was but but if I moved just a few meters away or went to the kitchen I would have definitely seen them. They were so bold and precise that they earned my respect. I can’t say the same about me, I still can’t explain how I was so close yet so useless. We count on each other to look out for things like that and I failed.

This is not the first burglary in our neighborhood and I have all the reasons to believe that our house is next in line. What should I do about it? Take Vamshidasa’s advice and leave it to Krishna? The family won’t like that. Finally I decided to put a notice on the door saying that there’s nothing of value inside, no gold, no money, nothing of interest. They can’t carry out big things like TVs, they’d need a car for that and they’d need to pass the security gate. The only thing they can take is the notebook and I decided to drastically reduce its resale value by putting in a lock that they can’t remove without breaking off a chunk of plastic, and by engraving our phone and e-mail address on the lid – removing it would result in serious visual damage. I’m planning to explain all that in the note I’m going to pin on the door, and also an advice to break in via side entrance where it would be easier and also cheaper for us to repair. I also decided to invest $10 into a cheap webcam and set it as a motion detector that would shoot out e-mails if it sees anything, we just need to leave the computer on, which is no big deal.

This compromise sounds satisfactory to all but I myself can’t stop thinking of Vamshidasa and his unique understanding that thieves actually have the rights to “my” stuff. I’m starting to realize that Krishna really IS in charge of everything and I can’t possibly override His will and protect myself from Him. If he wants to steal something from me it’s as good as gone already.

Now I just walk around trying to guess what exactly it is that he wants to take away. It’s a negotiation phase for me, apparently…

Vanity thought #247. Vamshidas Babaji Part 3.

I’m starting this post not with the desire to share my excitement about wonderful personality of Srila Vamshidasa Babaji but to remind myself of how excited I was just a few days ago. Funny how it works, I better harness my emotions while they are hot, or maybe I should always wait until I cool down and look at how much actual difference my discoveries made to my consciousness. Either way, back to Vamshidas.

Last time I left the story when he moved to reside in Navadvipa. According to HH Bhaktivikasa Swami one of the first things he did was to go on pilgrimage but no one knows when and where. What we know is that afterwards he stayed in Navadvipa for decades. There are no dates given in BVKS book but I guess he settled in Navadvipa around 1880 or during that decade and his next pilgrimage started in 1941, some fifty-sixty years later.

To put it in perspective – 1880 was the time when Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura finally settled in Navadvipa himself. Actually he was transferred there a couple of years earlier but this was the time he received initiation and published one of his first books. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was only six years old at that time.

Most of the stories of Vamshidasa’s life come from that period though his later travels are much better documented. Vamshidasa lived on the banks of the Ganges in a secluded place and so no one really knew him that well. By the time he caught attention of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, who for all intents and purposes introduced him into our narrative, he was already an avadhuta and so all his transformation from a son of a fisherman into a fully realized soul is lost.

That means we meet him living in a small kutir and worshiping his deities, of which he had several. I think there’s a difference of opinion about what deities he had exactly and here I’d give the benefit of doubt to Dr Kapoor simply because some of his conversations with his deities make more sense that way. For the purpose of this article let’s assume he had Gaura-Gadadhara, Nitai, Radha Krishna, and Bala Gopala. Bala Gopala was his favorite and the smallest one so on his travels he always carried him in his hand while meter high Gaura Gadadhara were carried in a bag by his associates.

All Vamshidasa’s life was centered about his deities, they were literally his life and soul and he didn’t know or care about anything besides them. Over the years he collected a small group of servants and associates who he occasionally communicated with but even then he’d often chastise them rather than sharing any personal feelings.

He never spoke to anyone else, at least not directly. If people asked him a question and he heard it he would simply introduce this new topic into his running dialogue with his deities and sometimes people would hear some fragments that could have been construed as an attempt at an answer. I’m sure modern psychiatrists would have diagnosed him with schizophrenia or worse.

Vamshidas never said things like “I think” or “I want” or “I went”, he always spoke of himself as a third person: “Vamshi ate, Vamshi cooked, Vamshidasa went” and so on. I’d like to speculate here that, as a self-realized person, he didn’t identify himself with his material form at all, the body of Vamshidasa was alien to him. Most of the time he communicated with his deities in his spiritual form and when there was a need to refer to his material manifestation he just couldn’t make himself to believe he was actually that body.

As an avadhuta he didn’t follow any social norms or customs, much less regulations, yet his day was more or less structured and timed. Early in the morning he would go out and collect food, then he would carefully sort it out and wash – only the best grains of rice and best vegetables could be offered to his deities, he didn’t allow any slack in that department, only on some special occasions. After that he would cook, offer food, take prasadam, and the day was basically over.

He didn’t follow any pancharatra rules of serving the deities either, no pujas, no bells, no dresses, he never put Them to sleep, nothing. I bet externally it appeared that he was playing with dolls. Hmm, maybe not, at least not like kids play with dolls these days – with houses, outfits, tea-sets and so on. He had one old, dirty looking cloth to cover his deities in the winter and that was it.

Most of the time he just talked to them, no one knew the content of those conversations and no one heard the deities talking back to him but, apparently, he told them jokes, they laughed, he complained about something, he disciplined them, and sometimes they had fights.

Dr Kapoor had an opinion that Vamshidas related to the deities in various rasas, including Gauranga-Nagari feelings for Lord Chaitanya. I wrote about Gauranga Nagara once here but maybe I was just being silly and naive. I think Dr Kapoor was wrong there and so was his mentor Haridas. In BVKS opinion Vamshidas related to his deities in vatsalya rasa, like a parent with his children and I’ll stick with that.

There was one area of overlapping interests between his spiritual and material lives there – theft. Bala Gopal, as we know, is baby Krishna stealing butter and yogurt from mother Yashoda and her friends, transcendental thief. Lord Chaitanya in his early years did pretty much the same stuff and was as naughty as Krishna Himself, so perhaps for that reason Vamshidasa often treated them as thieves, he thought that was their real nature. To him they were naughty and mischievous and they had to be punished.

Materially speaking it meant that he wasn’t going to guard thieves’ house, they didn’t deserve to be protected. So he never locked the doors of his kutir when going out and he never worried about thieves coming in and stealing stuff. Actually he was quite philosophical about it – he said that thieves come to his house by invitation of Gaura Himself and so it was not his business to stop them. He said that Gaura was very fond of residents of his dhama and so if he wanted them to come and take something from the kutir there was nothing Vamshidasa could do about it.

From this angle having things like locks made no sense at all. Locks are meant for people who want to maintain the difference between “us” and “them” and deny God’s superior will but Vamshidasa was not on that level at all. He saw every living entity as acting under the directions of the same Lord and so building fences between them was a very strange thing to do, it was basically trying to obstruct Lord’s will – “I won’t allow You to let those souls to come and take Your things that you want to give them.”

Sometimes they had to be punished, however. Once some thieves stole his cooking pots. I say “his” cooking pots but Vamshidasa didn’t see anything as “his”, he thought that Gaura and Nitai gave THEIR pots away without thinking about how Vamshidasa would cook for them without the cookware. So he got angry and he gave them an ultimatum – “If you want to eat you will have to bring your pots back, no pots – no food, get it?”

A short while later a guilty looking guy came with one of the pots. “Ah, it’s Nitai’s! Good job!” said Vamshidasa, “Now I can cook something for Nitai, he brought his pot back.” And so he cooked and he fed his Nitai. Gaura, in the meantime, couldn’t believe that he was left out and Vamshidasa was dead serious and so he stood there with a long face until he fell in line, too. Sometime later another guy brought back Gaura’s pot and family harmony was restored.

This thieving business is actually quite relevant to what happened to me over the weekend and I tried very hard to better understand Vamshidasa’s attitude to “personal” property and stealing in general, and there are a couple more Vamshidasa stories on this subject but that’d be better left for another day.