Karnamrita.das's blog

Why Chant Japa?

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My wife, Archana-siddhi, a veteran facilitator of the wildly successful japa retreats of some years ago, presented a class on japa at our small temple. After our signature arotik and kirtan with guitar, mandolin, and vocal harmony, she began her talk in her favorite facilitator style by asking the class to write down why they chant japa. Fortunately, as she discovered by asking, everyone present chanted japa on their beads at least some days if not regularly. Then, as she had hoped, we all found the shared answers inspiring, hearing some perspectives we hadn’t considered in the exercise, but thoroughly appreciated.

While we generally cite certain verses in Vedic scripture proclaiming that Shri Chaitanya, the avatar for this age, came to propagate the congregational chanting of the holy name, chanting japa is a very important aspect of the life of a sadhaka, or spiritual practitioner in Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Lord Chaitanya and his followers all took a vow to chant a certain amount of japa. The general principle is to always remember Krishna and never forget him, and it could be argued that the holy name is the same whether in kirtan or in japa—and for many devotees, kirtan is easier to do than japa—which brings us to today’s topic, of why should we chant japa.

Those who chant 16 rounds of japa on their beads find it takes from 2-3 hours, so why can’t we just do kirtan for that time? Certainly we can do that if we have a taste, and yet, we find that new initiates take a vow to chant a certain amount of rounds of japa, rather than to do a certain amount of kirtan. From this we can conclude that chanting japa is not less important than kirtan. Many of the leading kirtaneers consider that their focused japa helps the purity and taste of their kirtan.

Seek the Sky while Knowing The River

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I am returning here after some time, and I am sure I miss my writing more than you do, but that is OK, and just the way this blog space, and life, works. I share a free verse blog poem I began over a month ago. This poem is about being caught up in life, so much so that I couldn't write much during the last two months. From a writer's perspective, this is funny, because there was so much "grist for the mill" or interesting events for possible writing material. While I did begin a few other pieces, I wasn't able to finish them. I am not speaking of "writer's block," but of feeling caught up with circumstances and pushed in many directions. While these pushes were not bad in themselves, somehow they weren't conducive for my writing practice. As a result of what seemed to be impediments for creating blogs, I was reminded of how much time and energy it takes to regularly write and to publish it here.

According to the Bhagavad Gita we aren't the real doer, and our will is only one of five factors of action [Bg 18.14]. Thus we are never independent, even in the simple (not so simple) maintenance of our body, and what to speak of accomplishing anything of value. From a spiritual perspective, we have to be "empowered" just to live and breathe. And this is more obvious to me in any creative pursuit like art, drama, writing, or what have you. Personally, without making writing a priority I can't consistently write, or write well enough to connect with my audience.

While I admit to being a mediocre writer when compared to the masters, I love to do it, and generally feel what I say, which I pray will be communicated to you. If I am successful, then my words have power and utility. I have found that my free verse poems generally are read less than my regular blogs. I have developed a free verse style over the last 6 years on Krishna.com that works for me, and those I have heard from. Admittedly you may be required to read a line or series of lines a few times to have a sense of the flow--whether a line is a complete thought or goes on for several lines. However, I am not trying to confuse you or make you work too hard (which I think some poets do), but to be as clear and concise as possible. Call it shorthand, codes, word pictures, sutras (to be generous), etc., my endeavor is to share what moves me in various ways.

Homage to Shrila Prabhupada, in the presence of his followers

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Someone asked me to share my Vyasa-puja (as the appearance day of one's guru is called in Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition) offering. While I didn't write a formal one this year, and mainly recalled the times I spent with him, I looked up an old offering I wrote on behalf of the Baltimore temple in 1998, and found it still expressing my deep feelings, though today, with even more urgency, not only for ISKCON devotees, but for all those who follow the teachings of Shri Chaitanya. Like my last "blog" on the modes of nature, this entry is rather long, but I hope you will keep with it, and that you will find it relevant. It expresses my hopes and prayers for deep and meaningful devotee relationships and the spirit of cooperation and understanding based on the teachings of our guru(s), saintly person's input (sadhu), while confirmed by Vedic scriptures (shastas) and one's purified heart.

Dear Srila Prabhupada,

Please accept our humble obeisances at your lotus feet, O great savior of the fallen souls. All glories to you and your divine mission, which we have been entrusted to carry out!

Though there are many holy days to inspire us, today is a day like no other. This anniversary day of your appearance in this world also reminds us of your appearance into our lives, as well as who we have become because of you. Though we follow the bhakti path imperfectly, somehow we are in Krsna's loving network. How amazing! Amazing grace! If you had not compassionately, valiantly, and determinedly come to the West, where would we be today? Upon what would the foundation of our lives rest? What standard would we use to evaluate the value or use of anything? Where would our consciousness be and in what direction would we be going? After our body's demise, what would be our ultimate destination -- the sum total of our life's endeavor and thought? We can only shudder to think!

Noticing the Qualities (Gunas or Modes) of Nature

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There are many modern and ancient ways to describe the subtle building blocks, or constituents, of the material world for different purposes. However, looking through the lens of the Bhagavad Gita, we find a perspective of the physical world which is most helpful for yoga, or spiritual practice. While many people are at least casually familiar with the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang, the Gita's outline of the gunas, or modes/qualities/karmic-blueprints of nature, will be more helpful for those interested in understanding their material conditioning for making spiritual advancement. The Gita devotes a whole chapter to giving us a basic template for noticing the gunas in our life, and in subsequent chapters goes into more detail. This knowledge is so powerful that it is considered the best of all knowledge regarding the material world, by which even great sages have attained perfection (BG 14.1-2)

To understand exactly what the gunas are, we need to understand some basic yogic philosophy. The metaphysic of the Gita is that our true identity is spiritual--we are eternal consciousness, an atomic fragment (atma or soul) of serving disposition, or a spiritual particle of God. Our intrinsic nature is to serve or cooperate with our Source, the Supreme Whole, revealed to be Krishna--the speaker of the Gita. The world of matter is foreign to the soul, as a confining spacesuit is confining to a human being. In order to function in this realm of matter we are given physical bodies with unique characteristics built by various combinations of the gunas, further limited by additional laws of Nature, such as time and space. The Sanskrit word guna, means rope, or a type of binding force created as a manifestation and instrument of a soul's karma, or reactions to work from previous lives.

Making Peace with our Body and Mind, Finding Joy in the Self

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Reflecting on my life and the lives of those I know and read about, I see how much we all struggle with our material natures and tendencies, and how these can negatively impact our relationships with others. Even though we suffer on account of identifying with our bodies and minds, we remain attached to our limited perspectives or biased lenses, finding it difficult to accept that our entire problem of life is physicality. Ignorance is bliss runs the material world, and since we have invested so much time and energy in trying to enjoy worldly happiness, we don’t want to admit our folly in its pursuit. This is why spiritual knowledge is so essential, and even more so, realization of these truths.

Stated another way, many people may casually understand that they “have” a soul, but few try to act as one, or make realizing their soul and its relationship with God their life’s true quest. Genuine spiritual paths are meant to give us tools to realize our spiritual nature. In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, chanting the holy name and engaging in pure devotion (shuddha bhakti) are the means to uncover our soul and let it shine in love of Krishna. Material consciousness is muddy consciousness, while soul consciousness is like pure mountain water. This is why we speak often of “purification” when speaking about the effect of spiritual practices. Purification means taking away the mud of matter from our consciousness, so our real nature as willing instruments for divine purpose will gradually manifest.

The basics of bhakti are frequently repeated since the fundamentals need to be mastered before higher stages are obtained. While devotees of Krishna accept the fact that the ABC’s of spiritual life involve realizing that “we are not the body,” this isn’t so easy, even after many years of practice.

Eligibility for Bhakti--Faith

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Although Krishna reveals in his Bhagavad Gita that the purpose of the Vedic wisdom is to know, remember, serve, and love him, this truth is also the most confidential knowledge, since readers of these texts are often attracted by lessor recommendations, like the attainment of heaven, or merging into his effulgence (Brahman). What qualification is needed to uncover this truth from the jungle of sounds of the Vedas, and take up this most confidential, though obscured, path of bhakti, the greatest and most valuable treasure? One would think that such a rare gem would only be available to the most qualified persons. However, by the mercy of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, this treasure is readily available, initially requiring only one’s faith in the process. I use myself as an example to demonstrate this, not to say I’m great, but to highlight that I had no apparent qualification, and only have standing in bhakti by mercy alone. Thus there is hope for everyone.

The first time I spoke with devotees of Krishna I was very attracted to their peaceful, otherworldly, and joyful demeanor, and it was only a short time till I moved into a temple community to become a full time member. That might seem like a whimsical, spontaneous decision, but actually a lot of background took place which enabled me to do this. During the previous year, my life took a dramatic shift. I began an all-out quest to find the meaning of life, and my place in the world, concluding that I needed to become a monk in some tradition in order to immerse myself in spiritual practice.

How could this have happened to someone like me, who by all appearances was a very ordinary, not even religious, or observably pious, person—fallen even by Western standards?

Experiencing Krishna while Living in the World

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Two of the top difficult things to understand—out of many—for new readers of Bhagavad gita are the personhood of Krishna, and his Universal Form. Of course they are related, since Krishna reveals that the Universal Form comes from him, and is a manifestation of his energy as the material world. In particular this display of the Universal Form (there are others), though inspiring to show the greatness and inconceivableness of God, is also at times ghastly and fearsome, and as a form of time, “the destroyer of the worlds,” all of which may be disconcerting. While Krishna is both the creation and annihilation of everything he is also the seed of all existence, the life of all that lives, and the soul of our souls, so we have to look at the whole picture before being able to evaluate who Krishna is.

Krishna could have demonstrated his nature as the creator and maintainer by showing baby animals, lovely human children, beautiful scenes in Nature, the universe being incredibly sustained and flourishing, but specifically to get Arjuna’s attention, he wanted to encourage Arjuna in his duty of fighting by showing him that the great warriors he had to fight were already killed by Krishna’s power--in fact we all must die, our bodies that is, at our allotted time. For conditioned living beings, the Universal Form teaches us that the material world is temporary, and not really suitable for eternal souls to live, since bodies, planets, and the entire Universe are constantly changing, and will ultimately be vanquished. The point is that Krishna is present in all things and, through his energy, is everything. His greatness is all-sided and unlimited, manifested in the subatomic dimension and as the whole universe—in the micro and macro-cosmic level. For us imperfect and limited souls, he can be experienced in what we can observe. Though we can’t perceive his spiritual form, or even our own souls, we can, by the grace of the Bhagavad Gita, Shrimad Bhagavatam, and the mercy of the devotees who live by such revealed Vedic literature, “see” him, specifically in “…all opulent, beautiful and glorious creations…”[ Bg 10.41].

In what follows I will share some highlights of these manifestations of Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita, which is another version of the Universal Form, or Krishna’s material form.

Tears of My Father

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Two days after my birthday was my fathers’, or June 24th. This year I wanted to share some snapshots in my relationship with him, in the hope that it might be useful to you in your journey of self-exploration, making peace with your past (if required), or in general, having a balanced psychology so favorable for spiritual practice. Dear reader, I am indebted to you for taking the time to read this, and to think about your own relationship with your parents. What does it tell you about the nature of the material world of (re)birth, disease, old age, death and disappointment, and the importance of receiving the saving grace of spiritual knowledge and bhakti practices to uncover the eternal life of the soul?

I was running a preaching center on O Street in Washington D.C. in 1986. After leaving Baltimore with Maha-nidhi Swami to travel and preach, after some time I felt it would be a natural move to stay there. I had a small staff which fluctuated between 1 or 2 devotees. I also received some morale boosting, and financial support from the near-by Potomac MD, Temple from which devotees sometimes visited to chant, preach, or help cook. We held three feasts a week, mainly attended by college students and young people in the area. All was going fine for a few months after I settled in, and then, one afternoon between feasts, I felt like something ominous was in the air. It was a typical August sunny, muggy day, nothing unusual but this feeling. Although I couldn’t put my finger on the possible reason, I prayed for clarity to understand. As I was lost in thought, the ringing of the phone startled me. It was Barbara, my father’s current wife. She told me that my father had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

A long silence ensued. I didn’t have a personal reaction, being in shock, and besides, I wasn’t very good at dealing with others in such matters of intense sorrow. I was at a loss for words, thinking more about her, than for myself. Even today, it seems so inappropriate and trite to say things like “sorry for your loss,” or any number of socially correct statements. Finally, I was able to thank her for letting me know, and told her how sorry I was. Our conversation was awkward,

Are you ready to be Free?

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Are you ready to be free (?)
it doesn’t mean being a tree—
you laugh, but our body is the same—
we’re forced to choose survival,
for the tree, growing to the light
thinking that this is life’s purpose,
and we’re forced to be human
identifying with race, gender, age
mental likes and dislikes—physicality.

If we could only realize our self
the simple truth of spiritual existence
not defending what can’t endure:
our conception of material identity

“Love and Trust” is Developed, Maintained, or Depleted, by our “Emotional Bank Accounts”

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While we often hear Shrila Prabhupada’s statement that “our relationships should be based on love and trust,” we don’t often expand on how this can be created and maintained. One process I have found helpful is something we teach in our relationship seminars, namely the practice of checking the balance in the “Emotional Bank Account” that we have with another person—do we have a surplus of positive emotions, or are we overdrawn, in the red?

This is a metaphor that Stephen Covey [The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People] first came up with to describe "the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship." This statement really piqued my curiosity and interest in his work, and after scrutiny, dovetails nicely as a support to putting into practice Prabhupada’s aphorism. Just as we have bank accounts to keep our money in, we also have “bank accounts” to store our “emotional capital” or the energy that sustains or strains (if it becomes depleted) relationships.
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We could also consider this capital like a trust meter, and trust is the basis of reciprocal loving dealings. Very few people love unconditionally, but most of us require more positive interactions (deposits), than negative ones (withdrawals), to stay, or be happy, in a relationship.

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