Vanity thought #1554. Baskin Robbins

For two days I was speaking about rasa derived from reading the news. At one point I said that it must be rejected while at another time I said that we have no choice but to engage in relishing these rasas, albeit in connection to Kṛṣṇa. Well, not in connection with Kṛṣṇa personally, of course, but in connection with Kṛṣṇa consciousness, activities of the devotees etc.

This rasa thing, however, goes deeper than news, it’s all around us, and experiencing these rasas is our primary motivator in this world. I’d say when we talk about desires we mean we want rasa, so dealing with rasa is the same as dealing with desires – they need to be directed to Kṛṣṇa, not given up altogether. However, it’s not a simple, fit all solution – some desires need to be purified, some forgotten, some replaced.

Maybe nothing gets forgotten forever but some desires need to be rejected altogether for the moment, like the desire to inflict pain on others. Cruelty feels good but we don’t have a ready substitution for it in our daily practice. I mean Kṛṣṇa conscious practice, in our daily lives we enjoy subtle forms of cruelty very often, and if you watch the news there are plenty of people in the world who like to subjugate and torture people. The possibility of such attraction is there but we should not let it inside our heads, ie forget about it.

Rasa means different things in different disciplines, in mundane sense it means juice or tree sap, in Auyrveda it refers to medicine, in Vedic philosophy it means essense, but in Kṛṣṇa consciousness it means relationships with the Lord. The kind of rasa I’m talking about here has nothing to do with juices or medicine, of course, but it has nothing to do with devotion either.

There’s an ancient art of Vedic drama, Nāṭyaśāstra, and it has a section on rasa where it means human emotions elicited through theatrical performances. This is probably the closest to what I mean but it would be difficult to define emotions appealed to by news writers according to Nāṭyaśāstra classification. There are also further developments to that classification added by later authors, respected in that tradition but ignored by vaiṣṇavas. In fact, in our Gauḍiyā vaiṣṇavism we ignore Nāṭyasāstra, too.

Some say that Rūpa Gosvāmī took his rasa teachings from there but this theory is advanced by suspicious characters, not authoritative devotees. As far as I can tell, the source of it is one Graham Schweig, a wannabe yogī who rose through the ranks of academia, too. He is surely a knowledgeable man but that does not qualify one to speak on devotion and certainly not to interpret the minds of our ācāryas like Rūpa Gosvāmī.

This idea of putting Gauḍiyā Vaiṣṇavism in historical context and seeing it as an evolutionary step in Indian thought is quite attractive but it needs to be rejected. Rūpa Gosvāmī learned the science of devotional rasa from Lord Caitanya and Lord Caitanya described it as pertaining to the spiritual world. It takes a certain kind of atheist to implicitly reject Lord Caitanya’s divinity and suggest that he actually stole His teachings from Nāṭyaśāstra (and books like Gītā-Govinda on the transcendental eroticism).

This kind of atheism is common in ex-ISKCON circles, however. Deprived of Prabhupāda’s mercy and, therefore, genuine spiritual progress, they explain our teachings in terms they can understand themselves, which are empiric in nature – historical evidence and its speculative interpretations. They can’t accept that either Lord Caitanya or Six Gosvāmīs had genuine spiritual visions, they insist that it was all reinterpretation of existing works. Ordinary devotees simply don’t know the real roots but these “scholars” have discovered where Gauḍiyā Vaiṣṇavism really comes from.

They can speculate all they want but we should not let ourselves affected by their atheistic association. There are obvious objections to their theory even on empirical grounds – Rūpa Gosvāmī never acknowledged taking science of rasa from Nāṭyasāstra, never mentioned later authors like Kashmiri Śaiva Abhinavagupta, and his classification of rasa is entirely different. All our rasas are expressions of bhakti but bhakti has no place in Nāṭyaśāstra and was suggested later as a rasa of its own. Nāṭyaśāstra also speaks of seven primary rasas that are totally different from our five. You can have a look at how another ex-ISKCON devotee tries to fit it altogether here. It’s another speculative effort but it illustrates my point, makes certain sense, and it doesn’t reduce our ācāryas to plagiarism, even though the author is probably the biggest offender in describing them as products of their age. Just look how he tries to define progression from śānta to madhurya as stages in one’s material life. That’s not where rasas arise from.

The one interesting aspect of Nāṭyaśāstra is that it describes mundane rasas in terms of presiding deities and colors. It’s exactly what I need, even though I don’t trust its conclusions. The rasas we seek in the world are defined by guṇas – that’s why colors and deities. You mix a bit of this with a bit of that and get a complex flavor. It is beyond me to reduce the entire range of our emotions to three primary qualities of nature but I don’t see why it shouldn’t be the case. Combinations of the three guṇas are the source of both colors and deities, after all.

I bet the three guṇas can explain Baskin Robbins, too, but that’s not what we should be wasting out time on. It is possible and that’s all that we need to know.

Having all this in mind it’s easy to see how we get attracted to various mundane rasas – according to the influence of the guṇas we seek certain kind of shelter, in goodness, passion, or ignorance, but the tricky part is in connecting these emotions to Kṛṣṇa. There are no material guṇas there, there’s no equivalent of goodness or passion, there’s no ignorance. Surely, material guṇas have their ultimate source in the spiritual world, too, but that’s not a connection open to our understanding, let alone practical application.

We don’t have the experience of spiritual rasas yet and so we can’t express our mundane emotions in spiritual terms, as reflection of our spiritual feelings, and that’s why there’s nothing particularly wrong with rejecting these material experiences altogether. The way we perceive them now they are fully material and thus have no place in spiritual life.

Yes, they need to be purified and the only means for that we know of is somehow or other connecting them to Kṛṣṇa but it’s this presence of Kṛṣṇa, either as a thought or as a name, that is important, not the presence of emotions. We should not aspire to enjoy them and so should not waste time on seeking them. Somehow or other they will come as awarded by our karma, we don’t have to make separate efforts for it.

It’s the same answer Śrīla Prabhupāda once gave about teachings of Queen Kuntī. She prayed for calamities, devotees asked, so shouldn’t we pray for calamities, too? No need, said Prabhupāda, they will come on their own, don’t worry about it.

That’s why when I flick through ostensibly devotional news trying to steal my attention with promises of mundane feelings I tell myself “Do not bite, do not give in to this type of pleasure, do not let the mind indulge in it.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this solution, and I didn’t think it up, it came on its own and it’s already there. Maybe it’s driven by false renunciation but when such indulgence is supported by “It’s all about Kṛṣṇa” it stinks of sahajiyā. Kṛṣṇa is not present in mundane emotions just as he is not present in sex orgies imitating rasa līlā.

Forget the explanations, these rasas are meant for our own enjoyment, not Kṛṣṇa’s, and that’s why they fully deserve to be rejected, too.

Vanity thought #1551. How it’s done

For two days I’ve been speculating about interpretations of Queen Kuntī’s famous prayer asking for more calamities. I don’t think it has been in waste but there’s another approach taken by Śrīla Prabhupāda as quoted in Teachings of the Queen Kuntī that should show us a different way to understand that verse.

To recap: traditionally, and it is also presented in TKQ, calamities made Queen Kuntī remember Kṛṣṇa so she welcomed them, and if we follow in her footsteps so should we. Then there’s a reminder that Queen Kuntī didn’t simply remember Kṛṣṇa but actually had the experience of “seeing” Him so she wasn’t asking for pain and troubles, she was asking for more spiritual connections with the Lord. We can’t imitate this, and if can’t properly follow then we shouldn’t ask for calamities in our own prayers.

The third way is to interpret this verse through the eyes of śāstra. I don’t know of any similar sentiments but the śāstra has quite a lot to say about dealing with calamities. The way TQK was compiled this approach immediately follows Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purport to this verse in Bhāgavatam but this follow up is actually the beginning of a lecture on this verse delivered in Los-Angeles in 1973, and in this lecture asking for troubles didn’t come up at all.

The source of Queen Kuntī’s devotion to Kṛṣṇa is actually a mystery to me. She appears in the first Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam as an accomplished devotee already and already in the late stage of her life. A couple of chapters later Śrīla Prabhupāda gives an outline of her life (SB 1.13.3-4) but doesn’t explain how she became a devotee either. I haven’t read the relevant chapters in Mahābhārata but heard retelling of the same biography elsewhere, still no mention of the development of her devotion.

She was a sister of Kṛṣṇa’s father, Vasudeva, but then she was given to a childless uncle, Mahārāja Kuntibhoja, hence the name Kuntī. Her original name, and it appears in several places in Bhāgavatam, was Pṛthā. She grew up as a nice girl and always served guests of her adoptive father. Durvāsā Muni was very impressed by her service and gave her a mantra to summon any demigod she desired. She had no idea what it was for, being young and innocent, and so she was very surprised when she gave it a try – Sun god himself showed up in her room to have sex with her. She objected that she wasn’t married but Sun god assured her that he’d repair her virginity and no one would know. Thus Karṇa was born but she had to give him up because she still wasn’t married and couldn’t raise a son and claim virginity at the same time (insert a Christian joke here).

She later married Mahārāja Pāṇḍu but Pāṇḍu got cursed to die if he ever had sex. While hunting he killed a copulating deer in the forest who happened to be a powerful ṛṣi too shy to have sex in his original body. This could lead to an interesting discussion on sex life in the human form of life but let’s leave it out for today. He got cursed by the dying sage for not expressing remorse and insisting it was his right to hunt as a kṣatriya, which could lead to a discussion on stubbornness.

So, Kuntī got married but couldn’t have children with her husband. That’s when she remembered the mantra once again and Mahārāja Pāṇḍu agreed that it could be a solution. That’s how Kuntī got Yudhiṣṭhira, Arjuna, and Bhīma who were born by summoning respective demigods. This could lead to a discussion on sex in the higher species of life and freedom of will of the demigods but let’s leave that discussion for another day, too.

Pāṇḍū had another wife, Mādrī, and once he got too agitated by lust and approached her for sex, curse or no curse, and he died. This could lead back to the discussion on sex desire in humans but let’s talk about Queen Kuntī. After Pāṇḍu’s death one of his wives should have stepped into funeral pyre and, with the help of sages so it was all legit, it was decided that Mādrī would accept the satī ritual and Kuntī would raise the children – three of her own and two of Mādrī’s (who Kuntī sometimes shared benefits of her mantra with).

To translate it into the modern terms – she was a single mother with five children and no job, having already abandoned her first born, and we are only approaching the beginning of her troubles. Describing all that followed would be impossible here but we can be rest assured she had more that her fair share – surviving assassination attempts, exile, life in the forest, all the while raising five boys all by herself.

Still, I have no idea how she came to know that Kṛṣṇa was the Supreme Personality of Godhead and developed full faith and devotion.

Now, her request for more troubles shouldn’t be taken out of the context, and not only the context of her life but spiritual context, too. She clearly followed Kṛṣṇa’s instructions in Bhagavad Gīta even before they were delivered to Arjuna (BG 2.14):

    mātrā-sparśās tu kaunteya
    śītoṣṇa-sukha-duḥkha-dāḥ
    āgamāpāyino ’nityās
    tāṁs titikṣasva bhārata

I decided to quote Sanskrit here because Kṛṣṇa specifically addressed Arjuna as a son of Kuntī – she showed the way how it should be done.

“O son of Kuntī, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.”

She was an expert on patiently tolerating distress, she proved that by her entire life. This is another reason why we shouldn’t rush to imitate her prayers – let us leave through the life of similar pain first. Another verse that Prabhupāda quoted in this regard, and he actually started with it (SB 10.14.8):

    tat te ’nukampāṁ su-samīkṣamāṇo
    bhuñjāna evātma-kṛtaṁ vipākam
    hṛd-vāg-vapurbhir vidadhan namas te
    jīveta yo mukti-pade sa dāya-bhāk

“My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and offering You respectful obeisances with his heart, words and body, is surely eligible for liberation, for it has become his rightful claim.”

This verse has everything we ever need to know about pain – patiently suffer, earnestly wait for mercy, and keep going with your service. What do we get in return? Eligibility for liberation, but not the liberation itself.

I don’t think I need to say anything more, just contemplate the meaning and let it sink in – patiently suffer, earnestly wait, and keep going with your service.

Oh, and everybody else, including fellow devotees, would think you are a total failure, not just in life but in your devotion, too – because you’d have nothing to show for it but troubles.

Is there any other way to develop total dependence on the Lord? I don’t think so. Even guru would seem to have become useless, materially speaking, because he will not be able to help when it’s the Lord Himself who arranges for your suffering.

If we manage to survive through all that then we can think about revisiting Queen Kuntī’s prayer once again but until then imitating her would be foolish.

Vanity thought #1550. Seeing Krishna means..

Yesterday I brought forward a somewhat different interpretation of Queen Kuntī’s famous prayer asking for troubles (SB 1.8.25 and TQK 8). It wasn’t my idea but I thought it was interesting enough to explore. I also offered a possible explanation why we never thought of this before – because we were complacent and way over our heads.

Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote the purport to this verse before coming to the West so he might have made some assumptions about his readers that were later proven to be false. When he revisited this topic again in 1973 in a series of lectures given in our main temples (New York and Los-Angeles) we were again in over our heads, thinking ourselves more advanced than we really were.

What was that assumption that turned out to be false? That by remembering Kṛṣṇa we would actually see Him, that Kuntī meant it literally. Well, not exactly literally because Kuntī didn’t see Kṛṣṇa with her own eyes when she was living in the forest, but remembering and praying to the Lord for a devotee of her status is the same as seeing Him. It’s not so for us.

I suspect Śrīla Prabhupāda hoped that his readers would be more or less on the same level and when he was speaking on this topic in 1973 he also thought that ISKCON devotees were already there, but we weren’t. Some would argue that Śrīla Prabhupāda had a full spiritual vision and therefore he couldn’t be wrong and couldn’t misjudge our level of advancement but I don’t accept this type of arguments. Guru is not God, he is not omniscient, and Kṛṣṇa does not manifest all His potencies through guru in full. He can, theoretically, but He displays only what is necessary for our spiritual advancement.

In the case of Śrīla Prabhupāda I would point to his serious miscalculation of our ability to stay in marriage, for example. Originally he thought that he’d simply match boys and girls and the problem of sex in our society would be solved. Instead we unleashed a hell of complaints and demands for divorce under the guise of renunciation, and many didn’t even bother to ask. After a few years of very bad experiences Śrīla Prabhupāda washed his hands of the whole affair and lost faith in us in this particular aspect. Just recently I heard a quote where he stated our ineligibility for married life as a matter of fact – it’s just how we are, incapable of staying married, contrary to his earlier expectations.

So, when talking about Queen Kuntī’s prayers Prabhupāda assumed that simply by remembering the Lord we would gain enough of His presence to forget all out problems but it doesn’t happen. Similarly, his early message to us was “chant and be happy”, simple and śāstrically correct, but it doesn’t work on us. It did work for some very well, for those who embraced simplicity and had full faith in Prabhupāda’s words, but vast majority of present day devotees tend to overthink things, I would say, and find plenty of caveats in this simple slogan.

“Happiness is determined by one’s karma,” that’s what I would argue here. Troubles will come regardless of whether we chant or not, and then I would link back to this very prayer by Queen Kuntī or to Kṛṣṇa’s words in Bhagavad Gītā – “one should learn to tolerate happiness and distress”, not that “distress will never come”. How can one be in pain and happy at the same time?

In lectures on Teachings of Queen Kuntī Śrīla Prabhupāda acknowledged this problem and reminded us of Arjuna’s objection that knowing one’s spiritual position is not enough to be freed from pain of watching his relatives to be killed. “You must overcome it,” said Kṛṣṇa in response, eventually one will achieve the level of brahma-bhūtaḥ prasannātmā where these things will stop bothering him. On this level remembrance of Kṛṣṇa does bring happiness regardless of the material situation, Śrīla Prabhupāda was absolutely correct here, the problem was our actual position.

Our devotees sincerely thought that they were already there, fully engaged in service to guru and Kṛṣṇa, and therefore above material pleasure and pain. Maybe they were at the time but later it was proven that for many of us it was unsustainable. These days remembering Kṛṣṇa is expected to relieve us from suffering, not “seeing” him, at least for me. I can also point to plenty of devotees in relatively comfortable positions who attribute their happiness to Kṛṣṇa’s mercy, that it’s proof that Kṛṣṇa consciousness works. Maybe it is proof, but it’s not “seeing” Kṛṣṇa either. We are still not on brahma-bhūtaḥ platform yet, and I think everyone in our society acknowledges that. It wasn’t so in the beginning when people were speaking about it as given in their Bhāgavatam classes.

Hmm, I can think of one devotee, Navīna Nīrada, who still goes around spreading the mood of saṇkīrtana as if nothing has changed since the days it was so successful in his home country and Europe in general. He still talks about it as a matter of fact – take books, find people, preach, and brahma-bhūtaḥ is yours. We don’t do it, though, we become smarter, and we approach book distribution methodically instead. In India, home of our current champions, saṅkīrtana means finding rich donors, pandering to their egos, making them pay for thousands of books, and then giving these books away for free.

It’s just not the same, for millions of reasons, and so brahma-bhūtaḥ does not manifest. Elsewhere we talk about healthy lifestyle, yoga, and maybe try to please the vegans, which is not the same thing either. Many have figured that it’s better to hide our Hare Kṛṣṇa identity and pretend we are anybody else but followers of Hare Kṛṣṇa movement of the seventies and eighties. This obviously does not elevate us to brahma bhūtaḥ, too.

If we are not on the brahma-bhūtaḥ level then we won’t experience prasannātmā, we won’t become “fully joyful”, and so we might have calamities coming our way and they might make us think of Kṛṣṇa but it won’t be the same experience as that of Queen Kuntī, it won’t make us “see” the Lord.

Actually, in the verse itself, Queen Kuntī explains exactly what she meant: “seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths.” This could be interpreted differently from what I meant in the beginning of this post but it’s the same brahma-bhūtaḥ – freedom from birth and death, liberation. She speaks from the platform of liberation and she can’t have enough of various calamities because they add remembering Kṛṣṇa and thus complete her happiness and fulfillment.

Once again – on the platform of liberation, or on the platform of devotional service, calamities do not bring pain, but it’s not the same for us. If I asked for troubles I’d be harping about my bodily condition and demanding Kṛṣṇa to do something about it. That is not what Queen Kuntī teaches at all.

Vanity thought #1549. Queen Kuntī for beginners

Teachings of Queen Kuntī is already a beginners’ book, one could say, but I beg to disagree. I don’t know the exact history of its publishing but what is obvious is already telling enough – it’s a book for devotees and can be appreciated only by devotees. Moreover, many of us might not be advanced enough to understand it correctly.

The book is made of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purports written still in India, when he had no idea what his actual audience might be. He hoped he’d attract crème de la crème of English speaking society, he aimed for Western intellectuals. Instead he got hippies. This alone opens the possibility that it might go straight over our heads, Bhāgavatam is not the introductory course in Kṛṣṇa consciousness even if some chapters are more accessible than others.

The purports were further augmented by excerpts from Śrīla Prabhupāda’s lectures delivered in 1973 in New York and Los-Angeles. 1973 was a curious time in ISKCON so if Prabhupāda tailored the content to the level of his listeners it might be another indication that we should take this book more seriously.

In 1973 we thought we were invincible. ISKCON was on the up and up, we just got a temple in Māyāpura, in the birthplace of Lord Caitanya, which was a big victory, and the rest of the world was also in full Hare Kṛṣṇa fever. The side effect of it was that our leaders were amply rewarded with titles and positions and thought they themselves became invincible, too. Now we know that a lot of these “diplomas” in spiritual progress were premature but back then our devotees really thought they were already “pure”.

Prabhupāda didn’t seem to mind, everyone was following very nicely and there were no indications that his sannyāsīs would start blooping left and right. If there were problems they were thought to be isolated cases, not a general trend. He thought he could entrust running ISKCON to the GBC and concentrate on writing books instead, and it worked, it was probably the most productive period for him.

Temples in Los Angeles and New York were also main pillars of our community and as such devotees there expected to hear really advanced Kṛṣṇa consciousness philosophy, not the ABCs. Of course their definition of advanced then was probably on the level of bhakta training programs required for any new devotee these days but my point is that those weren’t lectures for beginners but for those who considered themselves fully renounced from the material world and fully engaged in spiritual service.

Then it all blew up in our faces, which why it shouldn’t be surprising that we might have misunderstood some of what we thought was basic stuff. We didn’t understand it then, or we wouldn’t run into the problems in the 80s, and we might not understand it now because we never paid attention to it since.

I’m not trying to reinvent teachings of Queen Kuntī, I just heard something in a class that needs serious examination.

The subject is Kuntī’s pivotal request (SB 1.8.25 and TQK 8):

    I wish that all those calamities would happen again and again so that we could see You again and again, for seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths.

This request for more suffering was probably the main reason for publishing the entire book, for it is truly mind boggling for the general audience. Of course we have Christians with their penchant for crucifixions but “beginners” in this context meant misguided atheists, not Christian wannabe martyrs. No one entices people into their religion with promises of more pain, everyone talks about eternal life full of bliss instead, but here we have Hare Kṛṣṇas begging for troubles right in the beginning of the main book on their philosophy. Isn’t it something wonderful and pretty unique?

Well, the other day I heard that when Queen Kuntī said “seeing You” she really meant it. She didn’t ask for calamities per se, she wanted to see Kṛṣṇa and it worked for her. We, in our neophyte stage, completely miss that part and remember only calamities.

For us calamities mean inescapable pain and disturbance of the mind. It doesn’t meant that we’d actually see Kṛṣṇa. We don’t know what seeing Kṛṣṇa means at all. We think that “seeing Kṛṣṇa” and chanting more rounds is one and the same, the name being non-different from the Lord. “If something bad happens it will make me think of Kṛṣṇa so it’s a good thing, so I get what Queen Kuntī meant there, it’s not that difficult.” We think that if problems make us pray more than the mission is accomplished and we’ve become just as advanced as Queen Kuntī in our understanding.

Nope, that’s not how advanced devotees see calamities and how they see Kṛṣṇa. Seeing Kṛṣṇa means actually experiencing bliss of His presence, be it in person, in the name, or in memories, it’s a full on samādhī and it’s not what happens to us. Likewise, “calamity” means a totally different thing for a conditioned soul and for a devotee lost in his service to the Lord. We look at it from the bodily perspective and react according to our bodily interests, it doesn’t affect the status of our relationship with Kṛṣṇa. We will not “see” Him just because we are in pain.

I would argue that adding pain to our attempts at service adds more distractions, not less. At first we didn’t think of Kṛṣṇa much and now we think more about pain, how’s that progress? The excuse that problems make people pray more doesn’t hold – they might be praying more but they’d be praying for the wrong thing – liberation from suffering, and it won’t impress Kṛṣṇa in the least. If Kṛṣṇa is not pleased then there’s no progress, no benefit in pursuing this course of actions. What we do is demand Kṛṣṇa’s service instead – to come and relieve us from our calamities. That’s why Christians are not getting anywhere – they look at God as their order supplier, it’s a waste of everybody’s time.

There’s another mischief going on here – like when a girl pretends to be in trouble to get boy’s attention. It works on boys but it won’t work on Kṛṣṇa, He can’t be fooled. We should give up this mentality that Kṛṣṇa’s mercy can be manipulated by our actions, that we can somehow deserve or elicit it. Nope, it’s causeless, it doesn’t depend on us whatsoever.

What Queen Kuntī was saying there is that her experiences of Kṛṣṇa’s mercy were always triggered by calamities, that’s how their relationships worked. We misunderstand it to mean the Kṛṣṇa’s mercy is CAUSED by calamities, and it’s a big, fundamental mistake. In our case Kṛṣṇa’s mercy manifests in our particular way, for some it’s deity worship, for some it’s kīrtana, for others it could be direct service to their guru. It’s Kṛṣṇa’s choice and He can change it any time at will, but we cannot. We cannot decide that from now on I’ll get my share of His mercy triggered by suffering.

I’m not in the position to fully grasp all the implications of this understanding of Queen Kuntī’s prayers. Perhaps it will come to me later on. Perhaps I will find reasons for an objection, too, but it’s certainly something to think about.