About disappearing swans…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hare Krishna


Vanity thought #1708. Another musical number

I was planning on continuing with tattvavāda accusations but something in my mind was too restless so I ended up clicking here and there on the internet. After about an hour I felt guilty and went to dandavats but that wasn’t enough so, feeling even guiltier, I went to check Samparadaya Sun. Turns out they have a letter from Siberian devotees complaining about another musical number. Here’s the letter and here’s youtube video in question.

The video is in Russian, all the comments are in Russian, too, but from the looks of it there’s absolutely no connection there to Kṛṣṇa consciousness and the poster, the daughter in their duet, has uploaded quite a few of the performances on that Russian show. It looks like a version of American Idol.

The songs they sing don’t mention Kṛṣṇa but they do wear tulasī beads on their necks. The letter tells us that TV audience knows they are Hare Kṛṣṇas but that was probably disclosed on another occasion. The video is edited to show only their performances and judges and MC talking about them, at the end they lost but from all their other uploads it appears they have advanced quite far and with only a couple of competitors left were pretty close to the final.

In their second song they wore pretty strange outfits and, perhaps, it was their dancing that reminded Siberian devotees of Michael Jackson, though they are obviously nowhere close technique wise.

It seems like a slam dunk, unlike previous complaint about Mahāviṣṇu Svāmī I wrote about a few days ago. Is it, though?

The big difference between these two cases is that Viṣṇutattva Prabhu is not a sannyāsī but a householder. As such he can have practically any job he wants, save for a butcher and a few other professions closely connected to breaking principles. For non-initiated even those occupations are not obstacles to beginning their chanting. One has to work to support his family and quite often it’s not a matter of choice but karma. Actually it’s always karma but sometimes we feel like we have a choice.

This is a touchy question because we expect our devotees to lead clean lives but in this day and age it’s often an impossible requirement while chanting absolutely must go on for everybody. We normally assume that if one is sincere in his devotion then Kṛṣṇa would make arrangements for that person and free him from shackles of bad karma pulling him down. What if that person is not sincere? That’s the thing with bad karma – it affects our sincerity, so what then? Forbid him from chanting? Rub his nose in his own sins?

Perhaps we should accept that devotees are really rare souls and if they also can follow four regulative principles it must be a really special arrangement between them and Kṛṣṇa. We can’t expect ordinary people we meet on the streets live up to our high standards but they still can start their chanting and reading about the Lord. Their progress is not entirely in their hands – they have both karma and Kṛṣṇa as components, too.

If that wasn’t true and we were fully in charge then all of us should be able to easily take sannyāsa and be done with our material engagements altogether. In our lives it is, however, patently impossible, even with all our chanting and Kṛṣṇa’s help. We should realize that for other people it might be equally impossible to follow four regs, too. And yet everyone must be encouraged to chant and if they do that we must accept them as devotees. We cannot reject anyone who chants the holy name.

Ok, the point is that we can’t forbid Viṣṇutattva Prabhu from pursuing his music career, it’s his karma and he can’t get away from it, and he doesn’t appear to break any regulative principles while doing it so there should be no problem with it whatsoever.

There would be no case if he was an accountant or a teacher or a security guard at the mall but when he sings it somehow becomes a problem. Why?

Because he is a regional GBC secretary for Siberia. That’s the only reason. There’s no problem with his singing in his role as a father and as a regular devotee but we expect better from GBC authorities. Siberia isn’t a small place, there could be thousands of devotees in his zone, so he is in charge of spiritual health of plenty of people depending on him for spiritual guidance. Of course they also have their own gurus but in our society spiritual responsibility is shared between a guru and an institution, and not only shared but has to go hand in hand without any friction.

That’s where we can have a potential problem – comparing to a guru, who is probably a traveling sannyāsī, this singer cum GBC secretary looks utterly materialistic and fame seeking. To be honest, I’d avoid such “stars” as a matter of principle because their association is extremely polluting. I’m not aware of any direct injunctions but in terms of fame they are more or less on the same level as local kings from Lord Caitanya’s time and Lord Caitanya famously avoided them by all possible means. The only time He allowed the king to approach Him was when the king took a broom and humbly swept the ground in front of Lord Jagannātha’s chariot. When the king became a sweeper he earned the qualification to approach the Lord, when he stayed as king he wasn’t allowed anywhere near.

Where was I? Ah, yes, ordinarily people seeking TV fame are shallow and self-absorbed, or rather they seek a certain kind of relationship with others where they need to be admired by as many people as possible. This attitude is clearly polluting because it projects wrong kind of values that we must cleanse from our hearts.

Having said that, I don’t think we have any specific requirements for regional GBC secretaries that would prohibit them from having singing careers. Maybe there’s a paper somewhere according to which Viṣṇutattva Prabhu could be disqualified if his behavior came under review but I bet it would come against all his activities as a devotee and as a leader of devotees in his zone. Lots of them apparently have no problem with his participation in this singing competition and think he performs his spiritual duties just fine.

What are we going to say to that? That they are ignorant and don’t know any better? That could be the case, too, but then we are talking about relationships between them and Viṣṇutattva Prabhu and the fact is it can’t be easily broken and one party to it can’t be easily substituted by someone else. I’m tempted to say that they deserve each other and they might not make quick progress but they’ll eventually get there – together.

In short, I don’t think letter writers have a strong case here but their concerns have to be acknowledged and addressed, too. I don’t know how, if I did I would be on GBC instead of in front of my monitor shouting my mouth off. Maybe Viṣṇutattva gets sanctioned or reprimanded, maybe he’ll realize that this music business interferes with his devotional life and he drops it voluntarily.

We don’t see any more of Radhanatha Svami’s videos singing along with karmīs and māyāvādīs so that somehow sorted itself out without making any noise about it, it could probably work the same way in this case, too. I hope it will.

Vanity thought #526. Catchy tunes

Today I was half-listening to Bhagavatam lecture on MayapurTV and was surprised to hear the speaker singing Krishna Krishna Krishna Krishna Krishna Krishna Krishna He to a popular classical tune. Later in the day I checked the recording again and finally learned that HG Sukreshvara Prabhu introduced it as his personal way of appreciation for Krishna, not as something we should all follow, too.

That made me think of all the times I tried to merge Hare Krishna mantra with catchy tunes that somehow get in my head and refuse to leave.

I don’t know the real cause of the catchy tunes, I don’t know what shastra says about them and the modern scientists do not have any explanations either. Some one-liners get into our heads and play on perpetual loop, everyone knows what it is and it can be extremely annoying.

One way of dealing with them is to change lyrics to Hare Krishna mantra and sometimes it works very well. Several years ago I had a bad affliction of Christmas music and almost all the songs there fit with Hare Krishna perfectly. Or I remember trying Katy Perry’s Fireworks, it was so good it could have been used for actual kirtans.

Still, I’ve never been satisfied with this practice, I perceive it as wrong and non-devotional. The best thing about it is that it purges earworms from my brain rather fast.

I reject this practice because no matter how nicely Hare Krishna fits into the melody, it’s the melody that makes it attractive to my brain, and with melody comes association of the author, producer, and the performer. These people convey certain mood and vibe that makes their products so attractive, and that attraction lies in certain forms of material enjoyment, be it feeling of power, control, hope, lust, desolation – we share their emotional state and we enjoy it.

When I transpose Hare Krishna mantra on those tunes I still don’t sing them for Krishna’s pleasure, I still enjoy the original feelings put there by materialists whose association, even subtle one, I should reject if I want to become a vaishnava.

Sticking Krishna’s Name on that subtle enjoyment doesn’t make it okay, it makes it only marginally better, and only if the goal is to get rid of the tune altogether. We cannot use Krishna’s Name to justify our continued enjoyment, that is actually an offense.

Now, Beethoven’s Ninth is probably not the worst kind of association one can get this way, it’s much better than some Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, but the principle is the same – it has to be rejected or it would become a serious anartha in our hearts. Anartha – thing without value that we keep attachment to instead of being attached to Krishna.

The mirror side of this problem is catchy Hare Krishna tunes. Over the years we’ve collected quite a library of “dhuns” and we keep adding more and there’s always one or two fashionable ones that everyone imitates in kirtans and bhajans.

I don’t think it’s a problem on the same scale as getting One Direction in your head but the mechanics are the same – we enjoy the dhuns/tunes ourselves, Krishna comes second. I don’t think that’s how the tunes originally come into existence but imitators/followers really have no choice – they like the tunes themselves and they sing them because they like them.

Does Krishna like them? We generally assume He does but we tend not to verify this with our gurus. When these questions gets passed on to Srila Prabhupada his answer was that he didn’t like any new tunes. He gave us a list for each arati service and he didn’t want to see any deviations.

We have a bit more freedom with Hare Krishna and kirtans outside arati services but one should be obliterated on the spot for starting gurvashtakam to the tune by some pop-singer. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur, for example, indicated what tunes his songs should be sung to, leaving very little space for personal choice. If we sing our kirtans to the tunes of our acharyas we would get a bit of their association. Why would one replace that with the taste of Beyonce? Only for personal self-gratification.

Having said that, if a popular Hare Krishna tune gets stuck in our heads and gets replayed over and over with Lord’s Names reverberating in our minds – what could possibly be wrong about that?

In conclusion – as with all other material desires – we can avoid them only by avoiding their sources. Desires come from association, a good devotee would never get hooked on Lady Gaga if he never heard about her. Same reason why we avoid pornographic and erotic images – once you let it in it will never come out and it won’t stop until it wrecks your service completely.

Maintaining our purity should be our main concern when navigating this world.