Vanity thought #1525. Touched by ignorance

In addition to yesterday’s post – another common contamination affecting us is materialistic approach to śāstra, and it makes our philosophy relativistic, though not morals per se. Morals follow from philosophy, however, so sooner or later they get affected, too, which, in turn, affects our choices, and wrong ones can plunge us deeper in the ocean of karma. It’s all connected – philosophy, morals, actions, karma, but maybe not devotional service itself.

Bhakti is a special case, it cannot be affected by material modes, if we have it we are safe, but if we don’t then acting inappropriately destroys our sādhana, and then hopes for attaining bhakti go down together with it.

Bhakti’s transcendental status is why we can look at someone like Śrīla Prabhupāda with mundane eyes, think we understand his behavior, attribute it to mundane causes, and decide that he was a common man. We don’t usually admit it but quite often ex-ISKCON devotees reduce Prabhupāda to being a pharmacist, for example, or an Indian, or a badly educated Indian.

To be fair, it could be said that Śrīla Prabhupāda used pharmacopoeic metaphors out of proportion.”Show bottle”, “sugar candy for those suffering from jaundice”, “take the medicine according to prescription on the label” – that sort of thing. Attitudes to women and rape come from his cultural upbringing, they say, and his knowledge of science was on the level of the early 20th century – that’s why “outrageous” statements about brain size etc. Now we know better, they say, so we should stop quoting Prabhupāda’s “scientific” explanations. Then there’s the whole Moon landings saga.

People think that Prabhupāda’s view of the world was shaped by these mundane and imperfect experiences. Sometimes they came handy, like when dealing with Indians in the matters of business and construction, sometimes they made him look ridiculous to outsiders, like in the matter of judging female brain size or distance to the Sun.

Once again, to be fair, everything Prabhupāda did was according to the laws of material nature, every action, every thought had a cause. He spoke English like an Indian, learned Sanskrit at school, had Bengali taste in food, walked with a cane, got hungry if he didn’t eat, got cold if it was cold, needed to go to the bathroom etc. Material body works according to material laws.

What the critics are seeing here is how but not why. Śrīla Prabhupāda did all these things for Kṛṣṇa and therefore he was untouched by karma. Bhakti was there and therefore Kṛṣṇa accepted his service under all circumstances, whether he was speaking on brains, medicine, or sharing Bengali proverbs. With our ordinary eyes we can neither see nor understand why the same actions we recognize all around us had a completely different effect on Prabhupāda. It looked the same in every respect, how could we not see him as an ordinary person?

It’s pretty much the same as trying to explain presence of God. If someone doesn’t feel it there’s nothing we can do. We can’t even use “feel” here because our material senses can’t feel God, we can’t “see” Him, we can’t “touch” Him, we can’t “smell” Him. We just know He is there, and in our own case we have been told he is there but we forget this fact all the time, let alone maintain constant perception.

Anyway, what I was getting at is that we absorb materialistic attitudes to śāstra and go along with it without realizing what we have done. It is similar to looking at Śrīla Prabhupāda with materialistic eyes and trying to understand his personality based on our own experiences (of Indians or old science).

With śāstra we think that we can figure out the meaning by studying, by examining it closely, comparing alternative translations, checking with dictionaries and so on. Non-devotees also read alternative commentaries from competing traditions. They think that by reading advaita explanation of Gīta or by reading technically correct translations they can get a full spectrum of understanding and cover all nuances.

Then they tell us that Prabhupāda’s translations were poor or inaccurate. There’s no “Personality of Godhead” in Īśopaniṣad’s invocation mantra, for example, or that samādhi does not mean service to the Lord, or cite any number of alternative, non-devotional explanations of various Gīta verses. They can defend their accusations, too, by explaining how all these alternative readings and translations are perfectly possible, and indeed they are.

A non-devotee can’t read it any other way, there’s no other possible outcome to their endeavor. They will not discover devotion by studying books and deducing meanings. For them samādhi will never mean service to the Lord. In fact, they will never find God in śāstra if they read it without devotion. Devotion is a precondition for studying, never a result – because it does not arise from jñāna.

Their process starts from ignorance – we don’t know the meaning, we want to find it. Then people try to construct the meaning from bits and pieces – dictionaries and grammar rules. Then they relate these emerging meanings to their experiences – what does meditation mean in samādhi, what does oṁ mean in Īśopaniṣad, what does brahman mean, what does atma mean and so on.

If they have no experience of God, however, these things will never be explained in terms of God’s presence and nature. Brahman will never be seen as effulgence of Lord’s body, for example. It’s just not how they can possibly see and experience it.

They might grant us God-centered explanations but those will go against their every experience. In their eyes devotees speak of something that could be true, mostly because there are vaiṣṇava traditions and everyone knows the concept of God, but they would also see it as nothing but wishful thinking because God is not real. Indeed for them God does not exist, He does not manifest Himself and remains forever hidden. The same Īśopaniṣad says that one can’t capture Him by his mind, the mind is not fast enough (Īśo 4). Even powerful demigods can’t approach the Lord, what to speak of Kali yuga degenerates.

Taking this bottom up approach to studying śāstra will not help us, as devotees we should learn the books the other way. Verses mean what Prabhupāda told us they mean. They might mean something else entirely to non-devotees but their opinions do not matter. We do not check our translations with dictionaries, we check dictionaries against our translations.

Existence of dictionaries is only to challenge us to explain how those mundaners could come up with such interpretations. Existence of advaita is only to challenge us to explain how people could become illusioned in this way. Existence of atheism is only to challenge us to explain how people ended up with so much hatred towards God. Existence of agnosticism is only to challenge us to explain how somebody could be so blind to God’s presence in everything.

As devotees we should see everything through Prabhupāda’s eyes. Well, actually our guru’s, but it so happens that Śrīla Prabhupāda remains our sole connection to śāstra for every ISKCON devotee of every generation.

With Prabhupāda all knowledge is already there, we don’t have to reconstruct anything, we don’t have to figure out the meanings, and there are no alternatives. Reading śāstra this way will automatically reveal its full, transcendental glory, which is impossible to attain with dictionaries and grammar. Then Prabhupāda’s translations will make perfect sense and will be seen as undeniably correct and spotless – because we will actually see their connection with the Absolute Truth, Kṛṣṇa.

All the other explanations will be seen as born out of ignorance and therefore useless.

Vanity thought #1443. Reading curse

While “researching” that new twist to jiva origin topic I had to read a lot of stuff posted by adherents of no-fall-vāda, and this made me think – what is the actual value of reading in devotional service. Coming off this binge I declare “None whatsoever!”

Maybe I’m being overly dramatic and I’m prepared to modify that statement a little bit, but not its essence. Our ācāryas might have spat on thoughts of sex, I’m far from that realization, but I’m getting close to spitting on thoughts of reading.

What about reading devotional literature? Aren’t we supposed to read one or two hours a day? Important question but my answer to this is simple – it’s not really reading, it’s taking association of Śrīla Prabhupāda through books. It’s not the knowledge and the ideas that we should be seeking when we do our daily “reading” routine, we seek Prabhupāda’s attitude to them, it doesn’t even matter which ideas in particular, any would do.

When reading Prabhupāda’s books we should be perfectly content with going over the same old passages over and over again and it shouldn’t matter if we might come across the same facts and solutions. Intellectually, we might not add anything to our bank of knowledge anymore but spiritually we hope that Prabhupāda’s pure devotional approach might rub off on us, too.

We shouldn’t read to improve our memories, we shouldn’t read to memorize ślokas, we shouldn’t read to improve our self-image of learned scholars, we shouldn’t be proud if we can manage two hours daily, not any more than we should be proud of completing sixteen rounds of japa.

All these things are unavoidable but they are anarthas, we should eventually let them go, they have no value.

What about dadāmi buddhi-yogaṁ taṁ promise given by Kṛṣṇa (BG 10.10)? Well, what about it? Prabhupāda’s translation and purport make it unambiguous – the knowledge will be given so that one can come back to Him, not for any other purpose, and it will be given, not developed through analyzing reading material.

Whatever we need to know for our devotional progress will be illuminated from within without any efforts to obtain this knowledge on our part. The conditions Kṛṣṇa places are also unambiguous – constantly devoted to serving Me with love. Satisfying our egotistic thirst for knowledge is not “serving with love and devotion”, it will be responded to as any other karmic activity – by further entrapping us in this world and by strengthening our taste for enjoyment, which in this case would come in the form of academic pride, for example.

We’d better hope Kṛṣṇa does not take these attempts seriously and carefully guides us to eventual realization that they are materialistic in nature, just as we hope He does with all our other anarthas.

We can approach this subject from another angle, too – desire to know things is a contamination by jñāna and as such it won’t lead to devotion but to impersonalism, which in our age would probably manifest as dreaded māyāvāda rather then innocence of the Kumāras.

To me it seems like a straighforward argument not opened to interpretations because it goes to the heart of devotional process – it should be jñāna karmādy-anāvṛtam, free from karma and jñāna, can’t get any more basic than that, there are no shortcuts and no ways go around this injunction.

There’s a way to question classifying reading devotional literature or devotional discourse as jñāna, however. Śrīla Prabhupāda translated jñāna in this verse as it appears in Caitanya Caritāmṛita (CC Madhya 19.67) as “knowledge of the philosophy of the monist Māyāvādīs” – I hope none of us ever reads māyāvādī books, so it doesn’t apply. Elsewhere, however, Prabhupāda rendered jñāna in this verse as mental speculations, empirical speculations, speculative knowledge, and even philosophical speculations, which I’m still very found of, I must admit. Checking if our reading material is speculative in nature is very easy.

On the surface the discourse might revolve solely around Kṛṣṇa and Kṛṣṇa conscious philosophy and all of the participants would strongly disagree if accused of expounding māyāvāda inducing impersonalism, what would I answer to that?

Well, māyāvādīs are also very fond of Kṛṣṇa, we’ve been told, they are not averse to describing His glories and activities, but their attitudes are fundamentally wrong and their glorification only causes pain to the Lord and to pure devotees who happen to hear it. This is an often repeated theme that I don’t need to find supporting quotes for, I hope. What I want to say is that our “devotional” discourses can be exactly the same – overtly about Kṛṣṇa but completely devoid of devotional substance.

Take this passage I had a misfortune to recently read, for example:

    It seems that you believe that Srila Sridhar Maharaj, BVT etc should not be challenged. But if that is so, then you will have to relinquish the claim that Gaudiya Vedanta tradition is scientific. Rather it is dogmatic. Dogmas cannot be challenged, science can be challenged. I acknowledge the great contribution of BVT and Shridhar Maharaj and they are truly heroes. But that dosen’t mean that whatever they said should be cast in stone. If ideas no longer make sense, they should be revised. And the idea proposed by BVT has logical flaws as is being pointed out by many people here, hence it needs to be revised.

The worst part is that this outrageous view wasn’t challenged, unlike all other “misconceptions” pounced on in that community, the person who commented on it actually supported the general thrust of the rest of that posting.

This cavalier attitude to our ācāryas (Śrīla Prabhupāda and Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura) is evident from another quote from that community:

    I hope we are not stuck with SP’s interpretation for eternity and reject BVT’s interpretation. Is SP the end of thought? Who knows what SP would have done in today’s time?

When accused of disrespecting Śrīla Prabhupāda the poster defended himself and even his guru didn’t see anything problematic with it:

    My disciples may have any number of opinions, as long as they can support them reasonably with sastra or the writings of previous and present acaryas. None of them disrespect SP.

That’s what māyāvādī do, too – they do not count their attitude towards Kṛṣṇa as offensive, they just don’t see it that way.

Here devotees talk about our ācāryas as mere contributors to our pool of knowledge and put themselves in the pole position to decide what to accept and what to reject. They don’t need no illuminations from within and they reject illuminations from outside, too – guru does not provide spiritual illuminations but only suggestions they are free to reject at will.

With this attitude ANY spiritual illumination becomes closed to them and so all their discourse turns into worst kind of speculations that poisons everything. It will never ever lead to bhakti growing in their hearts, no more than it grows in the hearts of māyāvādīs, and it can externally grow pretty big there, so we shouldn’t be fooled. I mean they might become like mini-Ramakrishnas and impress everyone around them but in the eyes of our ācāryas this kind of “devotion” has no value whatsoever. Why our ācāryas say things like that against apparent evidence of advancement is a whole different topic, however.

Vanity thought #310. Sevonmukhe hi jihvadau

This is a line from the famous verse, originally from Padma Purana, but known to followers of Lord Chaitanya mostly from Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu (1.2.234).

That verse is closely related to the futility of trying to understand Krishna through acquiring knowledge I reflected on yesterday but it offers another twist – it’s futile to learn about Krishna even by reading literature describing Him and His pastimes.

I can’t speak for other people but when I read accounts of Krishna’s life I imagine Him just like any other human being. I think I understand His thought process and I think I know why He behaves in this or that particular way – after all it’s nicely explained by Srila Prabhupada! But the point is that I still see Him as an ordinary person.

I know what other people would do in the same situations and that’s how I “understand” Krishna, too. This is wrong.

The only way to understand Krishna is when He reveals Himself – svayam eva sphuraty adaḥ. Anything short of that is MISunderstanding.

Is there any value then, in reading Krishna book? Of course there is, but, perhaps, that value is gleaned from another basic rule of devotional service – always remember Krishna and never forget Him.

Consider this – we know that discussing some of Krishna’s pastimes is actually detrimental for unprepared devotees, that means that there’s potential harm but, on the other hand, discussing real pastimes can’t possibly be harmful. The answer is that we are not discussing Krishna’s real pastimes, only our materialistic interpretation of them.

In our materialistic state of life the scriptures and our acharyas drew some lines and some rules for us to follow. We are advised to read some stories and avoid others not because of the level of our transcendental understanding but because our MISunderstanding can cause more problems with some of our rules and less problems with others.

There’s another reason, too, I believe – since we can’t approach Krishna directly we can express our desire to surrender to Him only via materialistic senses and emotions. We can’t cry for Krishna like Lord Chaitanya did but we CAN develop attraction to our materialistic interpretations of His personality.

Some might argue that if the stories do not feel interesting enough than we can’t force ourselves to like them but to this I would say that people get used to all kinds of stuff that they initially dislike. It might take longer time with the older people but eventually every one gets used to his conditions – that’s how the illusion works! If you find yourself stranded somewhere in Africa for years you are guaranteed to find pleasure in eating African food and listening to African music.

So it IS possible to force ourselves to find pleasure in reading stories about Krishna again and again and again without getting any transcendental taste in them and it WILL pay off in the end because this is the kind of sacrifice that pleases our guru and Krishna.

Yes, it is materialistic and imperfect, and, essentially sahajiya in its core, but it’s the only process we have at the moment – regulated devotional service. That’s the only way we can express our devotion (if we have any) in the conditioned state.

Vanity thought #309. The importance of reading

This is one of my favorite activities in my attempts at devotional service and I’m glad I’m not adverse to sitting down with a book for several hours at a time. I understand the current generation is lacking that kind of patience, unless they are reading comics. Good old fashioned reading, that’s what we all need. It’s our own quality time with Srila Prabhupada or with our acharyas, or, indeed, with Krishna Himself.

I’ve learned English by reading Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita, after all. How many times since then I thought about learning Sanskrit or Bengali? Not a month passes by without me making a promise to myself to look up some online Sanskrit courses and I always diligently read word for word translations hoping that someday I’ll start getting the meaning simply by reading Sanskrit. Never worked so far.

Our gaudiya vaishnava library is huge and even if one avoids reading about intimate pastimes of Sri Sri Radha Krishna we still have enough stuff to last a few lifetimes. Six Goswamis, Narottama Dasa Thakura, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura – a real treasure chest of devotion.

There’s one little problem though, and it’s aptly summarized in this quote from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati:

Out of His own mercy Krishna reveals all scriptural conclusions to those who please Him by their service attitude. Trying to understand the absolute truth merely by learning and cerebration is like trying to see the sun at night by holding a torch.

This basically means that all reading and learning is a one giant waste of time without pleasing Krishna by our devotion first. It means that we can’t learn about Krishna by learning Sanskrit or Bengali.

I always assumed that I would become a better devotee if I could read more stuff, I assumed wrong. I’m always envious of people who can know shastra inside out and can give quotes and trace origins even if in other aspects their devotional credentials are a bit suspicious. I was envious for no reason and I should give up this appreciation for worldly learning. Yes, I’m also envious of people with a deep knowledge of science, I know this is wrong but I was programmed to respect knowledge from my childhood. People who know more stuff are always better in my book.

I have to throw this book away.

I have to stop myself from gleeing over exciting new things and facts I’m going to learn when I take up new books. I will not learn anything important that way. This approach is completely erroneous – even if I accumulate knowledge of the Lord’s or His devotees pastimes – knowledge acquired for the sake of accumulation is ultimately useless.

I cannot substitute my lack of devotion and refusal to surrender submissively and unconditionally with a pile of facts and stories, this is not how it works and I’m only cheating myself.

These days I’m not as voracious reader as I was in school but I still need to choose my books wisely, simply hunting for new titles won’t do, I need books to transform my heart, for those I should hunt tirelessly until the end of my days.

There are so many stories in Bhagavatam that I hardly even remember, I should be savoring re-reading them first. Sri Jiva Gosvami’s Sandarbhas can wait, from what I hear about them I would be trying to prove my philosophical mettle, prove that I can follow and understand his complicated logic and arguments. This is nothing but sense gratification.

I hope one day I come across a simple quote from Srila Prabhupada that would turn my heart upside down. I see so many of them everyday but my heart doesn’t melt. I have to solve this problem first, then think about reading any further material.

I think I should repeat the quote again

Trying to understand the absolute truth merely by learning and cerebration is like trying to see the sun at night by holding a torch.

One of the best metaphors I’ve seen in my life, ever.

Vanity thought #236. Japa roundup.

It’s that time of the week for me to reflect on my chanting performance, after all that’s the only thing that matters.

Most of the week I spent on research, blogging, and reading and I’m in two minds about that as it affected my chanting in opposite ways. First, it made me remember that research, blogging and reading is also done by people with absolutely no interest in chanting.

Most of what I read comes from Internet battles for supremacy where people just love to display their intellect, amount of knowledge, and zero interest in actual service. They also display total disrespect for vaishnavas, the most notable observation. They are, in the words of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, on a “crow pilgrimage”, digging deep in garbage holes in search of rotten leftovers. They have no intention of glorifying the devotees whatsoever, they only want to enjoy the stink of somebody else’s material imperfections.

That makes me think – let’s say all their allegations are true, in a very very unlikely scenario, what would it mean in actual life? What benefit would one gain from chewing on that devotees themselves spat out in disgust? I have plenty of skeletons in my own closet, things I’m ashamed of and want to forget. They are testaments to my weak human nature and the lack of my devotion. I know they are there but I naturally avoid remembering them, doing so only contaminate my consciousness because those are things that I wanted at that time. Their memories bring out long forgotten desires and habits that I don’t want to carry with me anymore.

Sucking them out of the cesspool of my memory and reliving every repulsive detail as done by modern day shrinks won’t solve my problem of addiction to material life, it might rather lend the air of legitimacy because that would put a human face on inhumane behavior. We advance in spiritual life by focusing on Krishna pastimes, not by dwelling on our material past. Shrinks are not gurus, they do not save us from material disease, they only make it more enjoyable, which is directly opposite of what we seek.

So, if reminiscing about my life is not going to do any good to me, what good would it do to people who have absolutely no connection to it? Forget me, it was just a personal example, there are people digging up dirt on practically each and every acharya in our parampara, they study all historical documents they can lay their hands on and they compare them to the vedic siddhanta with the view to expose acharyas’ deviations.

Some of their talking points: Srila Prabupada – easy, he established a western cult in search of fame and money. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati – he deviated from the babaji tradition and established a ridiculous preaching movement that is not following the prescriptions of the six goswamis. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur – he was influenced by Ramananda Roy followers and so introduced foreign influence into the pure Gaudiya vaishnavism. Lord Chaitanya Himself started a new sampradaya that should stop using “Madhva” its name to give it an air of legitimacy.

I suppose every living being in this world, however devoted, has a material body that leaves a trail of stinky stuff in its wake. Even Vamsidasa Babaji who was a fully realized soul on a very intimate level with Krishna once got an urge to taste fish again (he grew up in a family of a fisherman). His reaction to the discovery of such desires in himself, or rather in his body, was very very unusual and I might cover it on another day.

My original point is that all those people on a crow pilgrimage know an awful lot of things, I will never catch up with them. So I did some more reading this week, just like they did, too. What’s the benefit? I might use my newly acquired knowledge to try and push myself towards Krishna but on its own this knowledge is nothing but a bunch of kilobytes I transferred from the Internet and into my brain. Time well spent…

On another hand, returning to my original concern about the value of reading vs the value of chanting, I’ve come across a few examples of “excessive chanting” that weren’t exactly the promotional material. First there was that devotee in Mayapur who came there frustrated with his service at home and started chanting hundred and fifty rounds a day and then wanted to build walls around his “kutir” so that he wouldn’t see other devotees, during Gaura Purnima festival. He soon gave up and returned home.

Srila Prabhupada made it into a lesson for everybody – until you have disturbances in your mind you should not try to engage nirjana-bhajan and rather engage in active service.

I’ve also read that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s brother, Lalita Prasad, who had joined the babajis, had chanted three to five lakhs a day. I’m not in a position to comment on the level of his devotion but he didn’t seem to appreciate the preaching mission that saved me and countless others from absolute ignorance about Krishna. That matters to me but it didn’t seem to matter to him, at least externally. If I take to his path and start chanting so much I might grow a cold stone in my heart devoid of any compassion for other living beings caught in the grips of maya.

Excessive chanting might not affect him but it would certainly affect me.

Btw, a little math here – two lakhs is a hundred and twenty eight rounds, or two sets of 4×16, the counters often seen on our japa bags brought from India. Hundred and fifty rounds is more like two and half lakhs. Three lakhs is three sets of 4×16, or three sets of sixty-four. Five lakhs is five sets of sixty four, or three hundred and twenty rounds. A little more math to follow just a bit later.

So, this week I was torn between reading and chanting, with reading eventually winning. I don’t know if it improved the quality of my japa overall, I’d like to believe it has, it has certainly improved from the time when I was fixing computery things a few weeks ago. I tend to look at reading as the next best thing if I can’t concentrate on chanting only. The next best thing available to me, I mean.

So, without the pressure to chant as much as possible my speed dropped significantly and refuses to go up again. I always said I’m not in control of those things. Sometimes I chant fast, sometimes I chant slow and there’s nothing I can do change it. Currently I’m at a stable five minutes per round. This drop in speed from less than four minutes records coupled with more reading and an extra hour I spend on this blog made my daily count drop to a hundred rounds zone, with hundred and eight rounds currently being the daily target.

Some more math – at five minutes per round three lakhs would take sixteen hours, I can’t do that anymore unless I have an the whole day entirely to myself. Five lakhs, however, would take over twenty six hours, which mean Lalita Prasad was chanting a lot faster than that. If he was chanting at four minutes per round he would have finished five lakhs in over twenty one hours, leaving less than three hours for sleep, bathroom and food.

Without offering any judgment, it’s a precedent for a really fast chanting, someone has done it before. I’m not chanting as fast now so it’s not a pressing matter anymore but it’s a nice little fact to keep in the back of my mind for my personal justification.

As usual, it’s all about me. Will my vanity ever go away? I could only hope.