Country Living, The Holy Name, Merciful Deities: Snapshots in Bhakti
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Every day my short evening walk to and from the temple is different for many reasons. The subtle changes in the seasons provide an interesting backdrop for my trip, and of course the weather either brightens or clouds over the vast sky and blinking stars—or rains/snows on my foot parade. When I began the evening readings it was pitch black as I left the house, and then gradually the sky has become lighter with the horizon illuminated increasingly, day by day. Such simple pleasures can give great joy, and are an opportunity to remember Krishna, feel gratitude for His rich bounty , and for finding our path to Him. We live only by mercy!
If I come up with a tune for chanting in the shower or in the beginning of my walk, I sing to myself, and listen to the sounds of nature, along with my steps punctuated by the thrust of my staff, which leads the way. In the silence of the country, even small sounds can be fascinating, while loud ones seem booming—like at one house, there are two very excitable dogs that bark aggressively at any person. Even though the barking isn’t esthetically pleasing, I have had to accept it as part of country living, since in a radius of a mile there are often barking dogs which are part of the night.
City jokes abound about slow country bumpkins, and yet in my experience slowing down to notice our surroundings and their lessons is very helpful for developing a progressive, awakened life—many drops of experience, make the ocean of a rich life! I have discovered how living in the country and being apart from the ever increasingly fast pace of modern society, is so spiritually beneficial, and even for the health of the mind and body. While devotees should be everywhere, including the cities, the question is: What will be our consciousness, or how much are we remembering and serving Krishna and His devotees with feeling? Wherever we are, having a deep inner life connected to Krishna, and our environment, is essential. Equally important is who we are, or who we are becoming, as persons. Only if we are authentic, balanced, spiritual people, will we be able to really help others (or ourselves!) find peace and divine life, now and for the long haul.
I bounce down the stairs to the foyer and front door. Freshly showered, bright tilak on my forehead, I wear my traditional Indian garb, or what Krishna devotees call, “devotional dress,” of a dhoti and kurta. Noting the 30 degree temp, I grab my warmest hooded jacket, and zip it up. I put on my shoes, back pack, gloves, and grasp my strong, five foot tall walking staff, carved by my son. This staff has become my trusted companion for hiking, and during the last three months, for my evening stroll to the temple for chanting and classes.
Opening the front door, the usual evening cold air meets my face. Walking toward the road, I take a refreshing deep breath, peering in all directions. O, the mysterious evening, when everything seems vast, all expanding, one in the darkness, and yet smaller, closer, and full of uncertainty. During the eight minute walk I think of different tunes in which to chant the Hare Krishna mantra, and so I sing loudly, spontaneously, and I hope, prayerfully.
As I sing, I’m not only bathed by the mantra, but by the beautiful full moon which illuminates my melodious steps to the Krishna Road Temple. How fitting to celebrate the appearance day of the great saint, Shrila Narottama das Thakur, with no need of a flashlight, but only the moon of the holy name. About half way there, I realize I had forgotten my keys, so I consider going back to the house, but then I decide to take my chances. Finding the temple front door locked, I walk to the side door, which is fortunately open. Smiling, I reflect that my life is full of both small and large blessings, even in its inevitable reserves or difficulties.
The alarm rousts me at least partially awake, and I have to decide to get up immediately or push the snooze button through a few cycles. As a young monk in the ashram I would jump up from my sleeping bag immediately without a second thought, but those days are long gone. Still, I am able to get up fairly soon if I have had my seven hours of sleep or a bit more. Getting up, I walk down the stairs to drink two cups of water to get my bodily fluids going. Brushing my teeth in the bathroom, I return to my bedroom/study, and read the Shrimad Bhagavatam for an hour or so. Then I shower, put on my dhoti, etc., and go back down the stairs to wake the Deities. Finishing that, I prepare to chant my japa, or the soft chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra on tulasi beads.
Deities of Krishna and His energies and expansions were an important part my spiritual foundation in bhakti practice, second only to sankirtan (group chanting of the holy name), and continue to be a vital part of my bhakti life. Thus, it is curious that I have never gone into an elaborate discussion about the concept of God having a form, or even more controversially—at least in the Christian West—a form that appears “in a way we can handle” as Prabhupada sometimes said. “That we can handle” has at least two meanings. One is that They (since there are many forms of the Godhead) are small enough for us to handle and serve, and secondly, we can handle Them because They are generally silent, not making demands of us.
Yes, they can speak to the pure devotees, or someone They show special favor. Radha and Krishna, or Chaitanya and Nityananada, or other forms of the Lord, are present in their paintings or Deity forms. Deities are considered mercy incarnations, since They appear in apparently material elements which we can see, even when we aren’t qualified to perceive Them spiritually. Although I am merely an average devotee, or less, I will tell you from my experience that such forms of the Lord reciprocate with our service to Them. I have many stories for another time, but in ending, I can say that after we dress Them (as is part of the bhakti practice), or when many devotees visit for a lecture, we feel Their presence more strongly. Chanting the holy name and Deity worship go well together—in fact, our main service to Them is through the holy name, and the prayer of giving our life and heart. In the ultimate analysis we, the soul, are the offering, beyond anything we may give Them in worship.