What can we learn from crows?
“Crows are very intelligent,” the narrator was saying, on the PBS broadcast I’d accidentally turned on. The trouble with being in a place where there is a TV, and a satellite connection, is that there is always the chance that you will turn it on, and don’t you know that’s just exactly what I did the other day.
Although I have read the verse from the Srimad-Bhagavatam comparing mundane literature of all varieties to ‘a place of pilgrimage for crows’, this was the first time I’d seen it come to life so vividly. It wasn’t even literature, but one step lower—a TV show—and the subject of the hour-long broadcast was to be the lives and learning abilities of crows. At great expense, researchers had studied certain crows to determine whether they could remember a trouble-maker among human beings, and share that knowledge with other crows, including their own offspring. As it turns out, according to the researchers, they could. When it got to the scene, several minutes into the show, where they were filming a crow tearing food scraps out of a bag of garbage, it was as if I could hear Srila Prabhupada’s voice clearly in my ear, deploring the misuse of human life and resources, studying the lives of crows. “Why don’t they study the lives of the saints, the teachings of God and his devotees? They are simply wasting their valuable human form of life.”
In the Bhagavatam, the very next verse describes a different type of literature altogether: "On the other hand, that literature which is full with descriptions of the transcendental glories of the name, fame, form and pastimes of the unlimited Supreme Lord is a transcendental creation meant to bring about a revolution in the impious life of a misdirected civilization. Such transcendental literatures, even though irregularly composed, are heard, sung and accepted by purified men who are thoroughly honest." (SB 1.5.11) This particular verse has always resonated with me very strongly, as it must have been dear to Srila Prabhupada—he quotes it in the Preface to the First Canto of his Srimad-Bhagavatam, which he brought with him in the cargo ship that brought him to America, on his first voyage, all alone, in 1965. He must have known that those first volumes were rife with misspellings and awkward uses of the English language. Yet he, more than anyone, was aware of the profound spiritual potency in the scriptures he carried, full as they were with the deep explanations—his Bhaktivedanta purports—for nearly every verse.
I got up from my seat and turned off the television. I went outside, japa beads in hand. Tried to concentrate on the sound of Krishna’s holy name. Overhead, a crow cawed. “Oh, very intelligent,” I said to him, jokingly. “Do you recognize me? The silly person who so often turns to topics other than Krishna?”
Still, I mused over another verse, this from the Sri Isopanishad. . . something about how one who learns the process of knowledge and nescience (ignorance) side by side can transcend the influence of repeated birth and death (Sri Isopanishad, Mantra 11). I seldom watch TV. But I do read non-fiction. Maybe I won’t turn in my library card just yet.