Vanity thought #1354. Teachings of Haridasa Thakura 12

The second story involving a snake is very different and it’s the kind that could be rejected by non-believers outright – it’s a story of possession and the snake speaking through the human medium. In not so ancient India it was a common thing, though – devotees being used by their worshipable gods to channel their wishes.

In Christianity this kind of thing is a big no no and they would call for exorcism rather than taking lessons. Two thousand years later and public pressure weeded out such mediums altogether even as a concept. I guess burning people as witches in medieval ages taught everyone that it’s a dangerous practice and so it was quietly forgotten. Elsewhere, however, the practice lives on.

In India and Malaysia there’s still a bloody festival called Taipusam (too lazy to google and check) where devotees fall into trance and become possessed by their iṣṭa-devatas. They become impervious to pain and whip and torture themselves only to emerge unscathed and unscarred once their meditation is over. There’s a similar festival in Buddhist Thailand where they worship Chinese gods instead and it shows that the principle is the same and works across different cultures.

So, there was this snake charmer who was bitten by a non-poisonous snake and thus came to channel the snake deity, Vāsuki. Under the influence of the deity and the mantras he chanted, the charmer began to dance. At that time Haridāsa Ṭhākura also came to see what was going on. The snake charmer happened to sing the story of Kāliya and of Kṛṣṇa dancing on his heads, which was appropriate for the occasion. Vṛndāvana Dāsa Ṭhākura specifically mentions that the snake charmer was dancing happily and singing loudly and sweetly. I don’t know and don’t care if Christians would call it a possession by a devil but it looks nothing like it. Why would a devil sing glories of the Supreme Lord?

This is the thing with snakes – they are universally hated, even in India, and yet the best of their species can teach lots of humans a lesson or two. I remember reading that even Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī said snakes should be killed on the spot and I’ve seen people do it in Vṛndāvana, there’s no mercy towards them, and yet we have Lord Ananta Śeṣa who is practically the very first expansion of Kṛṣṇa.

How come? Why does this great lineage doesn’t help snake image at all? Afaik, in every culture snakes are also the carriers of wisdom but when it comes to real animals, they are seen as manifestations of envy. Why is this duality in their nature?

Sometimes I think that Lord Balarāma is the source of these contradictions. He is the source of Ananta Śeṣa and He does not always behave as expected. During Kurukṣetra war, for example, He was seen as favorable to Kauravas, excused Himself from taking sides, and went on a pilgrimage instead. It seems He ignored all the moral teachings delivered to Arjuna, or by Bhīṣma to Yuidhiṣṭhira. He was above mundane morality. Then He descended as Nityānanda avadhūta and ignored some more rules and regulations. He was sannyasī who didn’t follow any particular order and then got married.

None of it can touch the Lord, of course, who is always above and beyond the law of karma, but it looks like He could be the inspiration for conditioned living beings’ wayward behavior. He has not a whiff of envy in His personality but those who imitate Him here, the snakes, might become envy personified. And at the same time they carry His wisdom. Go figure.

Anyway, when Haridāsa Ṭhākura heard the pastime of Kṛṣṇa subduing Kāliya he started dancing himself, his body manifested all transcendental ecstatic transformations and eventually he fell unconscious. Seeing this, the snake charmer stood aside and observed in silence, his hands folded in a show of respect.

The crowd cheered Haridāsa and took the dust off his body and his lotus feet, and then one brāhmaṇa, who Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta called a hypocritical, deceitful, cheating, artificial, imitative prākṛta-sahajiyā and the lowest of brāhmaṇas, decided to show that he deserved people’s adoration even more because he was born into a high caste family rather than being an ex-Muslim mendicant.

He also fell on the ground and started rolling in the dust but instead of adoration he was severely beaten with a stick by the snake charmer until he gave up his pretense and run away screaming.

As you can gather already, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī didn’t have any love for that brāhmaṇa’s behavior and condemned such imitation in strongest words possible. Prākṛta-sahajiyās were all the rage at that time so the lesson was very relevant. These days – not so much. Prākṛta-sahajiyā evolved beyond such simple shows and is a lot more sophisticated now. They impress people by talking big topics rather than by external displays of emotions. I don’t know if it’s a progress but in my mind I attribute it to strong preaching by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta. Just like “witches” are afraid to practice their skills, prākṛta-sahajiyās have become afraid, too. Otoh, subtle corruption is more difficult to notice and more difficult to fight. In the end, we must be better off, however, or otherwise all that preaching would have gone to waste, which is impossible.

People were surprised by snake charmer’s behavior. Why did he reward Haridāsa with respect but punished that squib of a brāhmaṇa? Hearing their concerns the snake charmer channeled the king of the snakes and through his human mouth dropped some supreme serpent wisdom.

His explanation was a perfect example that snakes are not simple-minded creatures, at least their leaders know perfectly well who Kṛṣṇa is, what the illusion is, what our position is, what they know the value of the devotees, too. He praised Śrīla Haridāda Ṭhākura in best possible words.

Some key points from his speech – to develop devotion for Kṛṣṇa one must be free from all duplicity. Duplicity was, of course, that brāhmaṇa’s chief sin. We should never ever imitate levels of devotion we haven’t achieved ourselves. We should never pretend to be more advanced than we are or we stand absolutely no chance of developing bhakti.

One might ask here – how do we know our real position so that we do not act above it? Hmm, when we act with duplicity we should see it in our hearts, we should be sufficiently purified to see it. That’s the main point. Once we purge as much of it as we can, we will act according to our actual level. It doesn’t matter what that level is, important part is to reject duplicity. Whatever duplicity still remains – well, that’s part of our level, too. People will see it, we might not, and it’s for our own good, too – we should not try to fool anybody, let them know our weaknesses as well as our strengths.

Another point was about insignificance of one’s birth into a particular caste or family – devotion to the Lord purifies all, while those devoid of it have no redeeming features no matter how high up they are on the social ladder. This should be encouraging for us – by chanting the holy name and by following our ācāryas we can transgress our unfortunate births and develop bhakti, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible.

Sometimes our ISCKON devotees feel hopeless, as their material conditioning seem to prevent them from following our path. Regulative principles, controlling one’s anger, controlling one’s pride, controlling one’s attachment to all kinds of comfort – all these things seem to be insurmountable, and yet we shouldn’t despair. We WILL overcome them if we follow the program.

Some say that if we act according to our sinful nature it’s not really a big sin but that’s not the lesson we should learn here. Haridāsa Ṭhākura might have been born a Muslim but he is glorified for transcending his conditioning, not for following it. He didn’t settle on eating beef just because he was born into such a family. He became an exemplary devotee instead, behaving better than any brāhmaṇa ever.

The snake charmer said many other things in glorification of Haridāsa but that was the gist of it, and his speech satisfied the public completely.

Vanity thought #1353. Teachings of Haridasa Thakura 11

Let’s talk about snakes. There are two episodes with snakes among the stories about Haridāsa Ṭhākura, both described in Caitanya Bhāgavata but not in Caitanya Caritāmṛta.

It’s not clear if these two events happened in sequence or if they were separated by many years. Śrīla Vṛndāvana Dāsa Ṭhākura simply said “listen to another wonderful incidence involving king of snakes”. It could have happened at any time, therefore, even before marketplace beatings. The first one, however, was just after Haridāsa was released by Muslims and found himself a cave on the bank of Ganges.

Now, I can’t imagine how he could find such a place. Nothing in the present day topography of Phuliyā suggests presence of the caves. There aren’t any mountains of even hills in that area, it’s all flat and probably flooded from time to time. How could there be a cave there “on the bank of Ganges”. Look at this Panoramio photo that shows how Phuliyā looks from the Ganges itself:

Perhaps they means something else, not a cave in a traditional sense, perhaps it’s just a washed away hollow in an otherwise sandy bank. Perhaps the land around it is supported by root systems of big trees rather than by rocks. Must ask devotees who actually live there, they might have a better explanation.

Anyway, Haridāsa Ṭhākura moved into such a cave but it already had an occupant – a giant poisonous snake. No one had seen it, however. The snake exuded overwhelming, choking, eye-irritating gas that everyone complained about. People just couldn’t stay there, it was a local physician who, listening to the symptoms, suggested that the presence of the snake somewhere deep in the cave.

It was all water of the duck’s back for Śrīla Haridāsa, didn’t bother him at all. Yet, seeing people complaining about it and realizing that no one would come to visit and hear him chanting if he didn’t do something about it, he agreed to move. Chanting in a cave is a practice of nirjana-bhajana and the way it’s ordinary understood it’s not meant to be disturbed by ordinary people. There was a devotee in Prabhupāda’s time who chanted half of Haridāsa Ṭhākura’s daily limit. He got himself a hut in Māyāpura and he complained to Prabhupāda of being disturbed by others all the time. Śrīla Haridāsa Ṭhākura was not that kind of bhajanānandi, he was not an ordinary bhajanānandi at all, he enjoyed preaching, not personal bhajana.

Therefore, he proclaimed that it the snake doesn’t leave by next morning he would leave himself. I’m just trying to picture how it looked. Haridāsa said that he had no idea there was a snake inside and while everyone’s eyes, throats, and noses burned he didn’t feel anything. At this point, however, was he talking to the yet unseen snake? It looks this way, he probably meant the snake to hear his promise/threat.

Or maybe he was talking to the Lord, not to the snake. He saw some people complaining and threatening never to come to hear the holy name and engage in spiritual discussions and he appealed to the Lord, or to the holy name, seeing them as non-different. If the obstacle, the “snake”, or whatever it was that prevented his visitors from engaging in saṅkīrtana, doesn’t clear out by tomorrow, then Haridāsa would have to search for a new place for their gatherings. He didn’t see it as “his” place, he saw it as a place for preaching.

For me, I would talk to the invisible snake, I see it as a separate object I can try to establish relationship with and, with the magic of the Holy Name, find a way to have influence over. Haridāsa Ṭhākura, however, most likely didn’t see the “snake” as a separate phenomenon, just a fluke in the force, something in the illusion that wasn’t conducive to devotional service, so he talked directly to the Lord.

If this is true then it’s an important lesson. We should not treat external phenomena as having any life on their own, in the vision of a parahaṁsa there are only three entities – living entity, the Lord, and the external energy acting under Lord’s direction. Every relationship he has is a relationship with the Lord and never with external phenomena.

Does he have relationships with other living entities? I don’t think so, only in as much as they both can relate to the Lord at the same time. We don’t talk to sleeping people, we understand that they don’t hear us, and for the parahaṁsa everybody “living” under illusion appears as sleeping, too. We can see people dreaming and being very absorbed in their imagination but we don’t try to reason with them about what they see, perhaps wake them up and tell that it was just a dream, nothing to worry about. Similarly, a paramahaṁsa might shake us up a little and tell us that all our troubles are just an illusion while we want help with the villains chasing us in our nightmares.

We can adjust a sleeping man’s pillow or cover him with a blanket, we can turn off the lights, open or close windows etc. We can do all kinds of things that will hardly be even noticed but we know they are for that man’s ultimate benefit and he’d be thankful for that in the morning. Similarly, a paramahaṁsa is only concerned with the ultimate benefit of the conditioned souls who might not even notice his help in their illusion.

Hmm, it makes sense now that Haridāsa Ṭhākura wasn’t addressing the snake, the way charlatans pretending to be mediums and seers do, or even the way we might address a kid who is hiding somewhere around. He talked to the Lord directly, asking Him to do whatever is necessary for the benefit of the conditioned souls who came to complain to him about their nightmares about some snake.

As soon as he said this, the snake appeared from insides of the cave and slithered out in everybody’s view. Śrīla Vṛndāvana Dāsa Ṭhākura specifically mentioned that it was early evening and everybody saw that snake, it wasn’t imaginary. It was large, fearsome, but also wonderful and beautiful – in Vṛndāvana Dāsa Ṭhākura’s words. It was colored yellow, blue, and white and had a brilliant jewel adorning its head, which somehow reminded everybody about Kṛṣṇa.

Everybody felt relieved and developed great faith in Haridāsa Ṭhākura but the book says that for Haridāsa himself the episode was nothing special.

As for the identity of that snake – we will never know, but the second snake episode tells us to have some respect for the best of their species, I’ll discuss that next time.

Vanity thought #933. Giving in to death

Last Sunday visitors to one of Australian lakes came across an epic battle between a snake and a crocodile. The news quickly spread around the world with both pictures and videos to demonstrate the gruesome outcome, I’m not going to post it here, it doesn’t fit visually, I think. Here’s what I gathered from the news.

Snakes there usually feed on small animals like rats and frogs, taking on a crocodile is a rare occurrence. Reasons are that crocodiles are big and they can bite, and after killing a crocodile a snake would become practically defenseless. Not worth the trouble, yet on this occasion something ticked them off.

The whole battle lasted four or five hours, when people walked on it it was practically over and only last ten minutes or so were filmed. We don’t know how it started, who started it, and how it went in the beginning. What people saw when they came was last minutes of crocodile’s life. He struggled to keep his head above the water but both animals were exhausted.

Some say there was a moment when they both sort of gave up and took a break on the shore, others say that crocodile was already dead when snake pulled it out of the water. Then the snake swallowed the crocodile in ten minutes. It kind of pulled itself over the crocodile as a sock, they have jaws that allow them to swallow animals much thicker than snakes’ own bodies. When it was done people could see outlines of the crocodile through snake’s skin – legs, ridges, everything.

With its stomach full like that the snake would spend a couple of months digesting the food and during this time it would have to hide somewhere deep in the mud because it would be in no position to move or hide or defend itself, as I said earlier. It was a three meter snake with a one meter crocodile inside.

Okay, now with details out of the way, what can be learned from this ghastly episode of nature in action?

First thing that comes to mind is the story of a battle between elephant Gajendra and a crocodile from the eighth canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. In that battle, which lasted a lot longer, the crocodile won, but the main difference, of course, is that Gajendra appealed to Lord Viṣṇu and was saved by His grace. It’s a beautiful story, one of the best, imho, but that’s not what happened here.

What happened is that a local Australian crocodile had met with his death, not with the Lord. As such it is very relevant to us – we all run a risk of dying without reaching lotus feet of Kṛṣṇa. This poor crocodile demonstrated what a meeting with death might look like for many of us.

Some people die in accidents or get murdered. Modern society doesn’t believe in ghosts or afterlife but there are plenty of representations what it might look like. It is assumed that it comes as a shock and bewildered people in their subtle bodies hover above the scene, not being able to realize right away what happened. Slowly it downs on them and then they can move on with their lives or get stuck there haunting the place forever. We know how death looks like passing through a tunnel but once they are out of their bodies as ghosts it’s not clear how they progress to their next life. Well, it’s all speculation anyway.

What happened to this crocodile is a different kind of death. It’s the kind of death that gives plenty of warning of its coming. It could be old age, it could be disease, or it could be capital punishment or other kinds of predetermined murder. This is the kind of death that gives you time to come to grips with the situation and you give up your life voluntarily.

What happened to this crocodile and what will happen to most of us is that at one point we will realize that we are doomed. Let’s try to imagine how it felt to this poor creature.

He probably sensed a danger when he came upon this snake, he could have attacked it first, for all we know. If the snake attacked first then he probably was horrified and started fighting for his very life right from the start. Four-five hours is a long time, even if he was exhausted in the ned I’m pretty sure the crocodile had a lot of power and energy in the beginning and thought he was in control of his life. Danger or not, but māyā forces us to feel confident in our abilities and our future and this crocodile was no different.

Our first reaction is not capitulation but rather a rush of adrenaline and full determination to assert our control over our life and our bodies. We all fight to win and we all have the will to win, it’s our strongest instinct, according to science.

Four-five hours is a long time, though, eventually adrenaline wears off, our bodies become exhausted and hope slowly fades away. At some point we just strive for a break and for a little reprieve, our will to live is still there but our resources aren’t.

Only then comes the realization that we are done for, that our life as we know it has finished, that there’s nothing keeping us in this world anymore. That’s when we might start grabbing onto our memories or even see our entire life scroll before our lives. It’s a last call to battle, so to speak, but the actual realization should be that we don’t have any stake in this world anymore.

This means we don’t have any friends, don’t have any families, don’t have even a body, and, importantly, we don’t have any enemies. In the beginning of our fight we clearly see who the enemy is – the state that executes us, a cold blooded killer who wants to cut our head off on video, or cancer that slowly eats away at our bodies, or even the plain old age.

When we realize that the battle is lost, however, the enemy disappears. It’s still there, of course, and we can see him sharpening his tools, but we don’t see the world in the same way anymore. It’s not about projecting our desires, not about fulfilling our inspirations, not about saving our pride or even saving our skin – it’s about us as tiny spirit souls and our fundamental right to life. At the end of the day this is all we know, it’s far closer to our souls than our memories and intelligence, perhaps only heartbeat and breathing are left as our life functions, so we stop caring about any other externalities.

That’s why the crocodile in his last moments looked so groggy and disinterested – he was coming to grips with far more important things than a bunch of people taking pictures, he wasn’t about to smile for the camera and he didn’t even care for the snake coiled around his body. He wasn’t thinking hot to get away, which way to twist, which way to push – he was far beyond all that, he was staring in the eyes of his death and he was learning to accept it.

It’s like a deposed dictator fleeing the country – he has so many interests everywhere, he has his finger in every pie, but when revolution comes he leaves everything behind – palaces, cars, bank accounts, he doesn’t care for small stuff anymore, he cares only about personal safety. This is what happens when the death comes, too, except our interests in this world are squeezed to the limit.

Finally, we realize that even breathing is not worth it and we let go and meet our fate. There could be millions of people celebrating our death, or millions of mourners, we don’t care one way or another because we come to see our life as it is – as a deal with death.

Question – why should we care about our lives now if we know that eventually time will come when none of our current interests would matter? Why do we want so many things from this world? Why do we allow ourselves to be drawn into this ever growing phantasmagoria? Nothing good will come out of it.

It is said that ordinary people meet God in the form of death. We aren’t special in this sense, we just hope that death will come in the form of Kṛṣṇa, but when it comes all the things we occupy ourselves with now will fade away and disappear just the same.

As devotees we also know that we CAN meet Kṛṣṇa right away but it’s exactly the same interests in the goings on of this world that keep us from seeing Him in the Holy Name. If we want to see Kṛṣṇa we need to die to this world right now but somehow we can’t. We have jobs, families, obligations, interests, we have “service” – so many things we feel we can’t give up. We have an image of ourselves that we feel the need to live up to and we don’t want to give it up either. That’s our real problem.

God, that crocodile was so lucky.