Rising Before the Sun
Urmila devi dasi
We can learn to love the early-morning hours—the best time for spiritual practices.
My student’s excitement ripples through his arms, which boast the muscles of early youth.
“I can sleep late!”
School for my students means not just academic study but also rising before sunrise to worship Krishna. Why doesn’t this student love the pre-dawn hours?
I look back on my life as a small child. Each morning my father would rise by 5:00 A.M. and wake me soon afterwards. Or did I wake spontaneously just to be with him? I would play in his office in our home while he showered. When I was very young we would play together, each of us with a doll. His doll told me stories of his life and taught me lessons of ethics and morality. As I got older, the play became a time to talk of the important things in our lives. My father squeezed fresh orange juice, made our breakfast, and forged our friendship. He made the early morning a time of peace, beauty, love, friendship, and understanding.
Mentally traveling forward, I remember sitting in a temple president’s office so many years later.
“I’d like to live here and dedicate myself to serving Krishna.”
“We wake up early in the morning,” he says. “Very early. Can you do that?”
I smile. “I’ve done that all my life.”
How easy now to spend the early mornings with my ultimate father, the Supreme Lord, Krishna! I sing His glories, dance to please Him, and study His philosophy. When chanting His names, I am personally with Him.
All day my father worked for our family, but the time we spent together, sometimes simply enjoying each other’s company, was often the most significant and satisfying. Now my sweetest time is spent in the morning just being with Krishna in His name, in His deity form on the altar, in the descriptions of His activities and philosophy. On days when I miss that time, I feel incomplete, even though I chant Krishna’s names and read His stories and instructions later in the day.
Rising early for prayer and study may become a chore, an obligation, as my student felt, and I wonder if I can give him the sense of wonder that my father gave me. I have read of medieval monks who woke each night at midnight for prayers and then slept a bit more until the next prayers before sunrise. They struggled sometimes, in those cold stone monasteries, to drag their sleep-heavy bodies and minds to the chapel. Some of them write of these practices as austerities or penance. We might similarly describe our Vaishnava devotions, yet are they not really rather a joy?
The ancient study of Ayurveda teaches us why the early morning so helps one’s spiritual advancement toward pure love of God. The controlling forces of the creation—the three modes of nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance—affect our consciousness, activities, and even the time of day or year. In early morning we more easily achieve goodness and, beyond that, transcendence. Passion increases with the day, as we consume our time with occupations and making money. At night, ignorance prevails, inciting inclinations toward degradation and crime.
Even if we don’t understand the workings of nature’s modes, most of us find focusing the mind difficult when pressed with the day’s demands. The early-morning hours can clear our consciousness, mellow our actions.
The challenge of focusing on spiritual practices at other times of the day is like trying to travel during a traffic jam, when arriving at our destination is a protracted business at best. When everyone else is on the road, we don’t want to be there. But during the off times, the same journey is fast and easy. Similarly, while we can spend time with Lord Krishna at any time and place, the early morning is an open highway. Our devotional thoughts can move freely, unimpeded. While nothing material, including time, can hinder spiritual life, if we’re sincere about spiritual progress we’ll aim to build our day and life around the favorable circumstances.
Logic and knowledge alone may not be enough to sustain us through a lifetime of daily practice. We’re part of the Lord, the reservoir of pleasure, so we also seek pleasure. To throw off the bedcovers each morning and embrace the day, our early-morning chanting and study must be a source of pleasure.
One can say, dogmatically, that the early-morning devotions are pleasure, and that one who practices regularly will surely come to feel the pleasure. The great spiritual teacher Rupa Goswami tells us that even if devotion to Krishna tastes bitter, by practice it will turn to sweetness. But while waiting to feel that joy, we may become discouraged, like the shopper at the end of a long line who decides to shop elsewhere. Therefore, we cannot hope to achieve perfection simply by following a formula because it is the formula. We must feel a real connection with Krishna, which is joyful even in the stage of practice.
Is the practice hard? As I look at the young student who thinks it is, I’m not sure. I pray that Krishna will awaken him to the feeling that he is truly and completely with the Lord.
We can come to love worshiping Krishna early in the morning as naturally and easily as I loved being with my father. After all, Krishna is the most lovable person. All good qualities reside unlimitedly in Him, His love for each of us is unbounded, and we know enough about Him from the Vedas to saturate our minds and hearts with love for Him and with thoughts of His greatness. If we just look at Him fully, and hear Him fully, with focus and dedication, will we not find joy in His presence?
The Early Morning Practice of Devotion
This is the general program Srila Prabhupada gave us, in line with the traditional practices of saintly, pure devotees of Lord Krishna.
- Rise before sunrise, preferably by 4:00 A.M.
- Bathe and dress in clean clothes.
- Gather with others, if possible, and spend half an hour in responsive singing of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and other glorification of the Lord. Generally, devotees gather in a special room in their home where there are pictures or deity forms of Krishna, Lord Caitanya, and Srila Prabhupada. (Many devotees travel daily to a temple outside their home.)
- If possible, worship the sacred Tulasi plant.
- Chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra quietly to oneself. Devotees usually count the number of mantras they chant on a string of 108 beads. Initiated devotees in ISKCON chant at least sixteen times around the beads daily.
- Read the scriptures and discuss their meaning and application according to the teachings of great devotees. Our main scripture for morning study is the Srimad- Bhagavatam.