Pilgrim’s Diary 4. Initiation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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