Blood Brothers

After spending three days with the one hundred devotees, including congregation members, of the Vladivostok temple, I went to Krasnoyarsk, in far eastern Siberia, for the last stop on my one-month tour. Of all the places I would visit in Russia this time, Krasnoyarsk was the city I most looked forward to.

It had been almost three years since I’d been there, and I wanted to see a Gypsy community where I had held a program during my last visit. I was curious about whether the people there had taken up Krishna consciousness. At the time, the local devotees doubted they ever would.

As we were collecting our luggage after the flight, I saw a group of devotees waiting for us outside. One man in particular caught my attention. He was dark-skinned, with black hair and a black mustache, and he wore a heavy, dark coat, typical of the Gypsies. I remembered him. It was Alexander, one of the more enthusiastic Gypsies at the program I had held.

As we left the terminal, he came forward and took my bag. We exchanged greetings, and he led us to his car.

“I will be your driver while you are in Krasnoyarsk,” he said with a proud smile.

“Oh,” I said, “very nice.”

As we drove into the city, I asked him about the other Gypsy men who had attended the program. He paused a moment.

“Some are dead,” he answered, “and most of the rest are in prison.”

Jananivasa Dasa, a Russian disciple traveling with me, turned to me.

“Drugs and criminal activity,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

Alexander smiled.

“But our leader is well and eager to meet you,” he said. “He still has the garland you gave him three years ago.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful! ” I said. “Please convey my greetings to him.”

“You can do that yourself tomorrow,” Alexander said.

“We’ve arranged another program for you at the gypsy village,” said my disciple Guru Vrata Dasa, the temple president in Krasnoyarsk. “Is that okay?”

“It’s more than okay,” I answered. “It’s exactly what I prayed for.”

But when I thought of the doubts expressed by the local devotees after the Gypsy program last time, I wondered whether returning to their village would be worth the trouble. I turned to Alexander.

“Alexander,” I said, “do you chant Hare Krishna?”

He gave me another big smile.

“Sixteen rounds a day, Guru Maharaja,” he said.

A Home Transformed

The next day we drove through the hills surrounding Krasnoyarsk out to the Gypsy village. I could see that it wasn’t a normal Russian town. The dirt streets were full of holes, and most of the houses were in need of repair. Children played here and there, but when they saw our car, they scurried into their homes, much like the last time I visited. They watched us with suspicion from behind glass windows.

The program was to be at the same home as the last time. As we got out of the car, I remembered the somber atmosphere inside—dimly lit rooms, thick, dirty rugs, old paintings of Gypsy history, and the sound of Gypsy music coming from a tape recorder. I closed my eyes and chanted softly, mentally preparing myself to tolerate the darkness and ignorance.

But Lord Chaitanya had a surprise waiting for me.

“Guru Maharaja,” said Alexander, “welcome to my home.”

“Oh?” I said. “This house is yours?”

Alexander opened the door, and immediately his family members and several other Gypsies broke into a melodious kirtana, accompanied with mridangas and karatalas.

I looked around. The whole house had been transformed. The walls were newly papered in a gentle off-white color, the rugs had been removed, and the wooden floors had been sanded and varnished. The room was well lit with bright chandeliers, and there were beautiful paintings of Krishna’s pastimes on the walls. I felt as if I were entering Vaikuntha.

The crowd of enthusiastic Gypsy devotees escorted me upstairs to a room that had a beautiful altar with a framed picture of Panca-tattva [Lord Chaitanya and His four main associates]. As we entered the room, everyone dived enthusiastically to floor and offered obeisances.

“What amazing devotion!” I thought, and I bowed down slowly, all the while watching the scene unfold before me. They led me to a big chair, sat me down, and garlanded me. Then they brought the kirtana to a close.

In the excitement I hadn’t noticed a group of ten or twelve older Gypsy men, obviously village elders, seated around the room, looking at me suspiciously. When two of them smiled slightly, I remembered them from my last visit. The others, however, were yet to be convinced that I had come to their village for a good reason.

Alexander spoke.

“We’re very honored to have Guru Maharaja come to our home,” he said. “Although he is busy traveling all over the world, he has kindly agreed to visit our village again.”

“Yes!” shouted one of the elders. “And you invited him! You’re the black sheep among us!”

The atmosphere was tense. Then another elder spoke up.

“Is your message more appreciated in some places than in others?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure whether his question was sarcastic or not, but I answered him anyway.

“Generally,” I said, “I find our message is more appreciated where people are in difficulty. In such conditions they are under no illusion about the temporary, miserable nature of the world and are eager to hear about God.”

A one-armed man in a black jacket spoke up.

“Are you accepted everywhere you go?” he asked.

“Not always,” I answered. “People are often afraid of what they don’t know. Just you like you Gypsy people. You are often misunderstood as well.”

That broke the ice. They all nodded in agreement. Now we had something in common.

“How do you deal with that misunderstanding?” asked another man in a more respectful tone.

“We’re not shy about letting people know who we are,” I said. “We’re happy to share our singing, dancing, and food.”

A man with a doubtful expression spoke up.

“Would you be willing to watch our singing and dancing?” he asked. “Or is this just a Hare Krishna program?”

All eyes were on me.

“I am a guest in your village,” I said. “I’d be honored to see your culture.”

The Leader Arrives

Suddenly there was a shout.

“Vyacheslav is here!” someone called out, and the leader of the Gypsies walked in.

Everyone immediately stood up out of respect. His status as a leader was made even more apparent by his large stature and prominent dark mustache. The atmosphere became tense again, and no one seemed to know exactly what to do.

I smiled and approached Vyacheslav with open arms. He also smiled and opened his arms. We hugged each other tightly for a long time.

Then we stood facing each other, hand in hand.

“I still have the garland you gave me three years ago,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I know. Your people told me.”

“It shines with the warmth of your last visit,” he said.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw surprised looks on the faces of the newly come elders.

“Come,” he said, “be seated.”

“No,” I said, “you first.”

I took him by his hand and sat him respectfully in a seat near mine.

“People don’t always show us such respect,” said one of the elders.

“That’s because you are thieves,” said Vyacheslav with a loud laugh.

Everyone burst out laughing.

“Krishna was also a thief,” I said.

The elders raised their eyebrows.

“But your stealing brings grief to others. Krishna’s stealing butter brings happiness to His devotees, who like to see his childish pranks.”

Again there was laughter.

“Personally,” I said, “I prefer to appreciate your good qualities rather than dwell on the bad.”

Now the ice had completely melted.

“You see good qualities in us?” someone asked.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “For example, you have invited me back to your village and received me well. And like everyone in the world, in your heart of hearts, you are all devotees of God. You’ve just gone astray, that’s all.”

No one disagreed.

“Then we’ll show you our Gypsy culture,” a man said.

“Yes,” I said, “I want to see it.”

Gypsy Songs and Kirtana

Several of the men shouted for a boy to come forward. The boy seemed to jump out of nowhere into the center of the room and began doing a Gypsy dance. He was talented, and he had everyone’s attention, including mine.

When he finished, the men told him to sing, and he began. It seemed to me that I had never heard such a sweet and lovely voice in my whole life. When he finished, I asked him to sing again. The elders looked pleased at my request, and one of them gave me a thumbs-up.

After the second song, the boy sat down near the elders, and they all patted him on the back.

Suddenly, another boy, a little younger, turned to the first boy and spoke up.

“You sing beautifully,” he said, “but if you were to sing Hare Krishna, it would be perfect.”

Silence. Everyone sat there, amazed.

Then the second boy closed his eyes and began singing Hare Krishna, also with a beautiful voice. His singing filled the room, and everyone seemed touched, even the elders.

When he finished, he opened his eyes and looked at the first boy.

“You see?” he said. “Now you chant.”

The first boy hesitated.

“Chant!” said the younger one. “Follow me!”

The younger one began singing Hare Krishna again, and soon the boy with the golden voice began singing with him.

The elders smiled at their duet.

Then the first boy turned to me.

“Will you please give me a spiritual name?” he asked.

I looked at the elders. They nodded in approval.

I thought for a moment.

“Yes,” I said, “you can be called Gandharva Dasa, the angel with the honey-coated voice.”

Everyone applauded.

Then I took my harmonium and began chanting Hare Krishna. Several devotees picked up instruments and accompanied me, and within a few moments the elders began clapping. A few of them chanted along.

Vyacheslav sat there with a big smile on his face.

Circle of Friendship

After bringing the kirtana to a close, I invited everyone to take prasadam.

“How shall we sit?” I asked our host.

“We shall all sit together in a circle,” said Alexander. “That is our custom.”

“And ours too,” I said.

As the prasadam was being served, I told the devotees not to begin eating until Vyacheslav had taken his first bite. The elders looked at me and then nodded to each other in appreciation.

And did those men eat! It seemed I had only just begun when they had already finished.

After discussing Krishna conscious philosophy with them for over an hour, I got up to go. Everyone respectfully stood up. I went into the bathroom, and after washing up I came back into the room. Vyacheslav, surrounded by the other elders, gave me a big hug. Then he grabbed my shoulders.

“We are brothers,” he said.

“Blood brothers,” I said.

He smiled.

“Yes,” he said, “blood brothers.”

Then he reached into his pocket, took out a large wad of money, and slapped it into my hand.

“Thank you for what you have done for us,” he said.

Then he turned to Alexander, the black sheep, and took both of Alexander’s hands in his own, a Gypsy custom for showing one’s trust in another.

“Thank you for inviting them,” he said.

Then Vyacheslav and the other elders escorted me outside to my car. Just as I was about to get in, Vyacheslav asked a devotee to take a photo of us all together.

“To remember you,” he said to me.

I got into the car, and we drove away.

As I turned around in my seat for a last look at my Gypsy friends, I saw Vyacheslav and the elders standing respectfully, the palms of their hands joined together.

I closed my eyes and silently prayed: “My dear Lord Chaitanya, please be kind and give these fallen souls Your mercy.”

Having extended His mercy to the living entities beyond what He had ever given before, Gaura Hari, the only Lord and refuge for the wretched, called out with a prayerful plea, ‘O Krishna, O ocean of mercy, please protect these people. O my master, they are burning in the great forest fire of birth and death. O ocean of mercy, kindly bestow Your service upon them.’

—Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya, Sushloka-Shatakam 63

Taking the Long Way Home

A successful physician tells his story of discovering Krishna consciousness at a young age and renewing his commitment thirty years later.

Crossing the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville one day in 1973, I heard the chiming of bells in the distance. A shaven-headed man in saffron robes singing by himself in an open courtyard caught my eye. Knowing nothing about the Hare Krishna movement, I thought he must be a Buddhist. I sat at a distance and watched for a long while, enchanted by his blissful singing. Finally I left without approaching him, but I couldn’t get him out of my mind.

The next day I returned at the same time, and there he was again. This time two or three younger monks, also with shaven heads, were singing along with him and passing out plates of food. I came closer and was delighted to find out that it was a vegetarian preparation. One young man handed me a colorful magazine and spoke to me. But I kept looking at the older monk, who was playing hand cymbals. He seemed to emit tranquility and wisdom. I had to speak to him.

This is my tale of how I came to the Hare Krishna movement, left, and eventually found my way back. Perhaps others who were once attracted to this wonderful movement and left for one reason or another can identify with my journey and give ISKCON another chance.

In the fall of 1973 I was a freshman at the University of Florida. I had started college young, at age sixteen. Like so many others in those days, I was searching for a deeper meaning of life. As far back as I can remember, the thought of aging, dying—the entire temporal nature of our existence—troubled me.

Brought up in a nominally Catholic family and educated in Jesuit institutions, I was always a spiritual person. From the age of eleven or twelve I read everything I could about theology, philosophy, parapsychology, and mysticism. By sixteen I was convinced that the priests, rabbis, and yogis I’d met were all as lost as I. What made the most sense to me was the philosophy of a simple Christian sect called The Christ Family. They believed that one should not kill (they were vegetarians), that one should not covet material possessions, and that one should be celibate. But they had no deep opinions about anything else and were basically wandering, homeless hippies. After a while I decided this group was just copping out on life.

When the senior monk was through chanting, I began drilling him with question after question. His initial response was laughter. Then he told me to slow down and ask one question at a time, and he would do his best to satisfy me.

Time seemed to fly, and before I realized it I had been talking with this man for hours. His explanations of the philosophy of Krishna consciousness touched me deeply. The other monks had gone, and I had missed all of my classes for the day. The senior monk invited me to their temple to eat and chant. I didn’t go that day, but for the days that followed I couldn’t focus on any classes or talk with anyone. I was really confused about my next step. The philosophy of Krishna consciousness appealed to me. But I knew that if I went to the temple it would be very difficult to leave. And I wasn’t ready for that. My entire life was in a tailspin.

A week later I approached a group of devotees and asked about the monk. They told me his name was Tamal Krishna Goswami. That afternoon I went to the temple on Depot Street. Suddenly a modified Greyhound bus pulled up. Fifteen young men, all with shaven heads, unloaded a variety of exotic instruments from the bus. A tall, attractive devotee saw me gazing in amazement and invited me on to the bus. There was Tamal Krishna Goswami.

Although only one week had gone by, he immediately said, “What took you so long to return?”

Brahmachari Life

The tall devotee—Vishnujana Swami—then began singing Hare Krishna to melodies so sweet that tears came to my eyes. I knew these people had experienced what I was searching for, true love of God. Soon I dropped out of school and moved into the Gainesville temple, where the temple president, Amarendra Dasa, trained me as a brahmacari, a celibate student living in the ashram. Later I went traveling with the Radha-Damodara Traveling Sankirtana Party, headed up by Tamal Krishna Goswami and Vishnujana Swami. The bus party, as it was called, was made up of dozens of young men who traveled around America in converted buses and vans, spreading Krishna consciousness.

Though brahmacari life was austere and a complete change from anything I was familiar with, my transition was natural and surprisingly pleasant. To explain why, I have to tell you a bit more about myself. As far back as I can remember, I never felt like I belonged here. I am a social being, not a loner, but in truth I did feel quite alone, despite plenty of friends and a close-knit family. To me, trivial conversations and worldly knowledge were as boring as philosophical arguments with abundant questions and few answers.

The brahmacari ashram, however, was full of colorful personalities, more enthusiastic and talented than any of my previous companions. There were musicians, artists, poets, cooks, philosophers, mechanics—all linked by devotion to Srila Prabhupada. This conglomerate of fired-up beings emanated warmth, love, and devotion. Their association turned what at first glance were unbearable austerities (and radical changes to my existence) into exciting adventures, lived as in a dream state. Every day I awoke to dancing and singing, followed by deep meditation and study of profound spiritual books. Where else, I asked myself, could I experience all this?

For the first time my life had meaning. Vishnujana Swami, Tamal Krishna Goswami, and so many others transformed the austerities into a dynamic and meaningful yet incredibly fun existence. I felt that the devotees really cared about me and my spiritual progress and were happy to take me along on the journey back to Godhead. Srila Prabhupada’s books—combined with an unexpected taste for chanting—solidified my commitment.

My downfall came from feelings that I was underachieving. I had abandoned my family and my dreams of becoming a physician. When I brought this topic up, the young devotees, who were not so mature in those days, were generally unsympathetic. That was difficult to understand.

Another problem: I always enjoyed temple life. To this day I still get excited each time the curtains open and arati begins. Traveling away from the temple was difficult. I missed the temple, but I was quite good at distributing books, so my supervisors naturally liked to keep me on the road.

In February of 1975 I visited my family. Then I returned to my devotee companions in Atlanta. Srila Prabhupada was at the temple. The mood was very high. Srila Prabhupada led some astonishing kirtanas and gave some unforgettable classes. Feeling unworthy and not yet serious enough, I had been avoiding initiation for over a year. I was supposed to take initiation that weekend. Initiation was a heavy commitment, and because of my conflicted feelings, I decided I wasn’t ready. Instead of getting initiated, I left the movement. The truth is I tried to leave, but the Krishna conscious life had become a part of me.

Back to College

Upon returning home, I found it difficult to fit in. Ordinary life could not compare with Krishna consciousness. My family and friends seemed like strangers, and no doubt they looked at me as if I had landed from another planet, because I retained remnants of a brahmacari lifestyle.

My first week back I resumed undergraduate studies at Loyola University in Chicago. Though my major was pre-medical, all of my electives were in Eastern philosophy and theology. I decided to seek employment and apply for student loans so as not to depend on my family for financial support.

After placing an ad for vegetarian roommates, I proceeded to convert an apartment near the campus into a quasi-temple. A nearby Indian shopping area proved a fertile ground for Indian musical instruments—harmonium, tambura, mridanga, and karatalas. I painted the walls bright yellow and wrote Sanskrit texts from the Bhagavad-gita on every free space. Soon my place was known as a meeting ground for vegetarians, hippies, and even estranged devotees from the local Evanston temple. My family became convinced that I had left my mind in some distant Hare Krishna temple.

I would often visit the Chicago temple, but the Radha-Damodara parties sometimes passed through and did not give me a very warm reception. That didn’t stop me from attending the aratis regularly, but I did begin the practice of slipping in and leaving the temple before anyone had the chance to talk to me.

My studies advanced quickly because I never took summer breaks. After completing undergraduate studies, I continued my graduate and postgraduate studies at a similar pace. Because I sometimes attended class with robes and a shaved head, my colleagues and professors thought I was eccentric. Still, they respected me because I was at the top of my class. I used what I’d learned from the devotees. Rising at 3:30 A.M., I chanted on my beads, and before any other medical student was awake, I had already studied for my courses.

I greatly missed my devotee friends. Prayers to Srila Prabhupada and Lord Caitanya (and a continuing taste for chanting the holy name) got me through difficult moments. But the material energy is far too strong to face alone. Gradually I stopped chanting and receded to a mostly illusory life, although I did find comfort in the thought that I could still dedicate my career to Krishna’s service.

For many years I practiced medicine in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and the US. During this time I visited almost every temple on earth. I would come in like a thief in the night. Sneaking in the back during the early-morning mangala-arati, I would slip out before anyone could speak to me.

My Arrest Record: A Fortunate Discovery

For the last sixteen years my practice was in Miami. One day, in the spring of 2002, I received a notice from the Board of Medicine in Florida that a new law had been passed requiring all physicians to be fingerprinted and to undergo background checks. Since I am the type of person who avoids even parking tickets, I thought nothing of this.

One morning the administrator of the hospital where I work called me to his office. He asked me for an explanation of my arrest record. I had no idea what he was talking about. Suddenly the recollection hit me and brought an immediate smile to my face.

The administrator, perplexed, said, “You must explain why you were arrested fifteen times in twelve states from 1973 to 1975!”

The simple answer was Hare Krishna book distribution, but I knew a longer explanation was in order. I told him that I was in the Hare Krishna movement when I was very young and that we often got picked up for selling books without permits.

To expunge my record I learned I would have to perform one hundred hours of community service. Since working for churches met the criteria, I decided to visit the Miami ISKCON temple to pay my debt to society.

On returning to the temple, I felt like I was home again. The movement is different in many ways, but I soon realized that Srila Prabhupada is still the force that forges the way.

Many great souls have again blessed me with their guidance and association. Trivikrama Swami, Dakshina Dasa, Dharma Dasa, Lakshmimani Devi Dasi, Malati Devi Dasi —the list would fill this page. I felt restored and ready for a more mature commitment to spiritual life.

I resumed chanting sixteen rounds a day and following the regulative principles with conviction. Soon I concluded that I must continue where I left off, so I searched for a spiritual master to take mercy on an old goat named Dr. Hugo Romeu. In May 2004, at the Festival of Inspiration in New Vrindavan, I became attracted to the speaking and preaching of a very loving and dedicated devotee named Bhakti Marga Swami. He heard my story and, after a time, agreed to accept me as his disciple and guide me in my service to Srila Prabhupada. Later that year, feeling like a nervous groom, I took the plunge. After thirty-two years of chanting Hare Krishna, I finally accepted a formal initiation into Krishna consciousness.

A Renewed Commitment

I have heard sad tales from some disgruntled devotees who have left ISKCON, but as far as I’m concerned, my days in ISKCON were the best of my life. I was living out a spiritual experience that most seekers just dream about. I had the opportunity to meet Srila Prabhupada, the founder/acharya of ISKCON. I had the association of Tamal Krishna Goswami and so many great souls. To this day I have no idea why I have been so fortunate.

To exist in the material world and simulate happiness is impossible once you have tasted the life of devotion to Krishna. I found out that you can run but you just can’t hide from Krishna.

I’ve become a successful physician, but I feel that my greatest accomplishment has been to resume Krishna consciousness. To chant sixteen good rounds on my beads is more difficult and tastes much sweeter than any material accomplishment.

It took me a lifetime to realize that real medicine for suffering people is found in the gifts Srila Prabhupada gave the world.

I am happily married and have fathered three wonderful children. My family members are all vegetarians. Although they always knew of my love for Srila Prabhupada, they were surprised at my newfound commitment to ISKCON. When they ask if I’m going to run off like I did when I was sixteen, I assure them that ISKCON has matured and gives great emphasis to family life as a solid foundation for practicing Krishna consciousness.

Today I feel my life has truly become full. I hope to give a little back from all that Lord Krishna has given me. I’ve become a member of the Miami temple board and try to help devotees as much as I can. I hope to please Srila Prabhupada, who has always remained in my heart, by pleasing his dear servant Bhakti Marga Swami, my spiritual master.

Dear reader, after my experience I have one request of you: Please reaffirm your commitment to push Srila Prabhupada’s dream of a flourishing Krishna conscious society into yet another generation.

Austerity—Door to the Highest Pleasure

Hair shirts. Little sleep. Cold showers. Dry crusts. Contrition. Severity. No affection. No sex. No fun.

These were some of the images the word austerity conjured up for me before I met Srila Prabhupada, who attracted me to a life of austerity by teaching the secret of divine austerity (tapo-divyam),or austerity for the pleasure of Lord Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada pointed out that any reasonable person, whether materialist or spiritualist, will agree that the purpose of life is pleasure. Everyone wants to be happy; the only question is how to find pleasure that truly satisfies. He argued that all of us in the material world are more or less selfish but we don’t know our actual self-interest.

Srila Prabhupada explained that we are part of Krishna, like leaves on a tree or fingers on a body. As the self-interest of a thirsty leaf lies in letting water find the tree’s root, and the self-interest of a hungry finger lies in putting food in the mouth, so our self-interest lies in pleasing Krishna.

Krishna’s interest is our interest because we’re never separate from Him. The Srimad-Bhagavatam describes Lord Krishna as atmanam akhilatmanam, “the original soul of all living entities.” So to love Krishna is natural. When we realize this truth, what may now seem an austerity will be a blissful act of love. The devotee sage Narada says, aradhito yadi haris tapasa tatah kim/ naradhito yadi haris tapasa tatah kim: “If I am worshiping Krishna, what is the use of extraneous austerity? And if I’m not worshiping Krishna, what is the use of my austerity?”

Yet until I attain my natural, healthy state of pure love, I need to act in ways conducive to that end, to create an external and internal environment where love can grow. Srila Prabhupada therefore taught that austerity means to voluntary accept some physical inconveniences for spiritual advancement. Whatever we wish to achieve involves some effort. But effort does not necessarily imply drudgery. As we learn the transcendental art of dedicating our lives to Lord Krishna’s service, an apparent hardship or problem can become a joy, a labor of love.

We don’t need to go looking for difficulty. We’ll get it naturally, by our karma, just as we get ease. But austerity means performing our service to Krishna despite any inconvenience that might come along.

Srila Prabhupada said there’s no need to undergo the austerities of bygone ages, such as meditating alone in the jungle, eating only roots and leaves, sitting surrounded by fire and the blazing sun in summer, or standing in freezing water up to the neck in winter. Rather, he taught the austerities outlined by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad- gita (17.14-17):

“Austerity of the body consists in worship of the Supreme Lord, the brahmanas, the spiritual master, and superiors like the father and mother, and in cleanliness, simplicity, celibacy, and nonviolence.

“Austerity of speech consists in speaking words that are truthful, pleasing, beneficial, and not agitating to others, and also in regularly reciting Vedic literature.

“And satisfaction, simplicity, gravity, self-control, and purification of one’s existence are the austerities of the mind.

“This threefold austerity, performed with transcendental faith by persons not expecting material benefits but engaged only for the sake of the Supreme, is called austerity in goodness.”

Within the context of devotional service, this list of dos and don’ts—although in some ways resembling my original idea of austerity—becomes an exciting challenge. I’ve noticed that when I take up the austerities given in the list, I feel good, bright, and enlivened. I want to push forward along the spiritual path.

I also feel cleansed. Divine austerity acts like an invigorating shower, refreshing and cleansing us, no matter how dirty we may be.

The Sanskrit word for austerity—tapasya—includes the concept of heat. As heat purifies gold and increases its luster, so austerity burns away the dirty coverings of the soul and brightens one’s spiritual luster.

Furthermore, Srila Prabhupada brought us a very special gift: the austerity called harinama-yajna, the sacrifice of chanting the holy name of the Lord. This transcendental austerity snaps material bonds, stimulates full life, opens wide the door to the highest bliss, and showers its practitioners with love. Our main austerity is to bathe in the brilliant waters of the holy name.

Caring for Guests

Sometimes when my family and I prepare for the arrival of guests, our home becomes a flurry of activity. We all like to take part in some way. As we clean, cook, decorate, put flowers in vases, do extra shopping, and discuss where our guests will stay, the atmosphere in our cottage is surcharged with giving, excitement, and cooperation. The day soon becomes a festival.

Any stresses and strains between me and my wife, Radha Priya, or between the children become eased (or at least postponed). My heart becomes enlarged and relaxed in a mood of abundance, and I feel happy.

The children are happy too?because they know there will be something special cooking in the kitchen. Food is about the nub of it. There is something special, anywhere in the world, when people invite you into their home and share their food with you.

I once saw two Chinese illustrations of heaven and hell. In heaven many people were sitting around, each with a bowl of rice and long chopsticks, happily feeding each other. In hell they just tried to feed themselves.

In the Vedic tradition it is customary to invite guests for the main meal of the day. If by chance a man has no guest, Vedic custom prescribes that he should go into the street and call out, ?If anyone is hungry, please come and dine with us!? In Vedic society every guest, even an enemy, is seen as Krishna?s representative. An unexpected guest (atithi) especially provides the host the opportunity to think, ?Maybe this guest has been sent by the Lord Himself.?

Sharing prasadam, food prepared for and offered to Krishna, helps expand our consciousness?from seeing only the needs of the immediate circle of our own family to seeing that every living being belongs to the wide, wide circle of Krishna?s family. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura sings, krishnera samsara kari cadi anacara: If you want to enter the spiritual world, practice being in Krishna?s family in this world.

Grihasthas, married people?who are advised by the Bhagavad-gita to give charity?especially have a great opportunity to taste the ecstasy of being in Krishna?s family by taking care of Krishna?s guests. The guests are Krishna?s guests because our homes belong to Krishna and we are His servants. When we openheartedly welcome and take care of the needs and comforts of our guests, we certainly draw their good wishes and blessings. And if our guests are pleased by our Krishna conscious reception, we can assume that Krishna is pleased. Apart from chanting Hare Krishna, what is a more enjoyable way to make spiritual progress?

Dealing With Depression

“Within days of chanting the mantra regularly on beads, I felt a lifting of my depressed feelings. Light entered the darkness I was so accustomed to living in.”

In the evening of November 14, 1975, I received a phone call in my dorm room at college. Absorbed in studying for exams, I answered nonchalantly, expecting it to be my boyfriend, who would normally call me around that time. Instead, I heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end, and a young man identified himself as one of my brother’s new housemates.

I thought, “What has Philip done this time?”

For the past six years, Philip had suffered from a bipolar disorder, then known as manic depressive disorder. Several times he had stopped taking his medications and lapsed into a psychotic manic state. The last time that had happened, he was found lying in the middle of the road, trying to see if the cars would stop. He rationalized his behavior as a test to see if man was inherently good or evil. Luckily he was arrested before any harm came to him, and he was again admitted to a psychiatric hospital to become stabilized on medication.

The night I received the phone call, I’d just seen my brother the previous day. He’d been in a subdued, thoughtful mood. Although attending classes at the university and doing well, he said that he didn’t see any hope for his future. Everything seemed futile. I gave him one of my standard pep talks, reminding him that things would get better and he just had to ride out the storm. But since I shared his views about the futility of life, I wondered how convincing I’d been.

I too struggled with depressed moods. I’d just started my own spiritual search, but I didn’t yet have compelling answers to his desperate question of why to go on in life. Still, he had assured me he’d be all right and thanked me for our talk.

After a long pause on the telephone, his housemate blurted out that Philip had hanged himself in the basement. His body had just been found. The caller offered condolences and hurriedly excused himself from the conversation. I hung up the phone, stupefied and numb.

Intense Search

My brother’s tragic death intensified my spiritual search. I looked for answers in religious books and scriptures. I fervently prayed for guidance.

I soon had the good fortune to meet devotees of Krishna. They too shared my views about the futility of living a life just to grow old and die. But unlike me, they were radiant and happy. That apparent contradiction increased my curiosity to understand more about their beliefs.

I learned that the devotees were accessing another dimension of reality. They taught me that beyond this temporary world of birth and death is an eternal world, where a person’s happiness is ever increasing in relationship with the Supreme Person, Krishna.

I was familiar with the concept of an afterworld through the teachings of Christianity: Live a good life, and you’ll be assured a place in that world at the end. But what attracted me to the Krishna conscious presentation of an eternal world was that I didn’t have to wait until I died to be transported somewhere; I could achieve spiritual consciousness in this life.

This did two important things for me. First, it gave me a goal worth living for. Second, I could perceive the progress I was making each day, and that would help give me the impetus to keep working toward the ultimate goal of realizing my spiritual identity in relationship to Krishna.

The devotees showed me the basic ingredients for spiritual progress. Foremost was the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, the sound incarnation of the Lord. Krishna has empowered the mantra to purify our hearts of all unwanted feelings, such as jealousy, greed, and hate. The mantra helps us uncover our real spiritual consciousness, now shrouded in countless desires that separate us from the Lord.

Within days of chanting the mantra regularly on beads, I felt a lifting of my depressed feelings. Light entered the darkness I was so accustomed to living in.

The sound of the mantra released me from a vision of the world as vacant and without purpose. I quickly became devoted to chanting the maha-mantra more than seventeen hundred times a day (sixteen “rounds” on beads), a practice I’ve continued for the past twenty-five years. The chanting has had many positive effects. One of the most dramatic changes for me has been a freedom from the depression I lived with for so many years before being introduced to Krishna consciousness.

Depression Defined

Most people have depressed moods from time to time, often pointing to a need for change, either internal or external. We might have to alter our perception or understanding of something, or find a different kind of job or a new place to live.

Feeling low now and then is not the same as clinical depression. To be diagnosed as a clinical depression, a severe depression in an adult must be present every day for at least two weeks, and a less severe depression must be present most days for at least two years.

In the deepest sense, depression or despondency is the soul’s yearning to be with Krishna. Ultimately, our desires can never be satisfied by the things of this world.

In the West, one of the most vivid examples of this dissatisfaction is the Christmas morning ritual. How many Christmas mornings did we race to the tree, bursting with anticipation? How many Christmas mornings did we rip through wrapping paper, hoping to find the gift we’d asked for all year? Then, in the wake of torn paper, tangled ribbon, mangled bows, and strewn boxes, how often did we feel morose and unfulfilled?

The magic of anticipation disappeared. Yet, amazingly, the next year we’d again be tricked into believing we can find happiness under the glittering Christmas tree.

Covered by the Lord’s illusory potency, we think we can be happy in this world even though we’ve been disappointed time and time again. To teach us the error of this kind of thinking, Krishna sometimes covers His own liberated servants with illusion so they can act like one of us. One such devotee is Arjuna. Faced with the prospect of having to fight against relatives, teachers, and friends, he is briefly overcome by depression and loses sight of his spiritual identity. Thrust into the illusion of bodily identification, he wants to run away to the forest, neglecting his duty as a warrior. In that bewildered and painful emotional state, Arjuna tells Krishna he can’t find any way to drive away his grief, which is drying up his senses. At that point he realizes that no material solution will bring him relief. He turns to the Lord for shelter.

To help Arjuna out of his depression and back to spiritual consciousness, Krishna then speaks the timeless wisdom of the Bhagavad-gita. These transcendental talks with Krishna cure Arjuna of his desperate anguish and allow him to act according to the Lord’s directions.

Depression And Spiritualists

We might doubt that a serious spiritualist could develop an emotional or mental ailment. But just as the Lord can use physical sickness to bring a devotee closer to Him, He can use mental distress as well. That was shown in Krishna’s dealings with Arjuna.

We have access to the same source of solace Arjuna had. The Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna, is seated within our hearts. He wants to give us good counsel and direct us out of our unhappy state of being. And He directs us to a bona fide spiritual teacher who will also help us on our journey in this temporary world.

The material world is not our actual home, and the body we see in the mirror is not our real self. The Srimad- Bhagavatam says that we can’t be happy in this world unless we’re a fool or a pure devotee. A fool can ignore reality and live as if he’ll never die. But a pure devotee, having realized his spiritual identity, is no longer affected by the impermanent material body. Pure devotees are with Krishna in the spiritual world, even though their physical bodies are here on earth.

Since most people fall somewhere between the fool and the pure devotee, no wonder most people feel depressed moods off and on and an estimated twenty-five percent of the population of the United States develops a clinical depression sometime in life.

Depression can be useful if it leads us in a spiritual direction as we seek answers to our unhappiness. The Lord in the heart will coax us toward Him. If we choose to ignore Him by turning our attention to the ephemeral, external world for comfort, by drowning our emotions and insecurities in intoxication or other mind-altering activities, we’ll perpetuate our miserable feelings. We’ll destroy our sensitivity to hearing the internal voice of reason and wisdom.

While spiritual practices are the ultimate cure for all depression, the very nature of depression sometimes prevents spiritual seekers from doing the very things that could help them out of the quagmire. For a jaundiced person, candy, the cure for the disease, tastes bitter. But if the patient keeps eating the candy, the jaundice is cured and the candy tastes sweet again. In our diseased material consciousness, chanting Hare Krishna—the cure—may often seem difficult, but as we advance in our spiritual consciousness, the chanting becomes sweeter and more and more enjoyable.

So while we should encourage others to take to the spiritual remedy of chanting, we may need to encourage them to get medical help as well. We should never ignore the symptoms of clinical depression in ourselves or in our family or friends. The symptoms include some or all of the following: low self-esteem, irritable moods, lack of energy, thoughts of worthlessness, poor appetite or over-eating, sleeping too much or too little, thoughts of suicide or murder, lack of desire to do things once found pleasurable, and feeling little hope that things will get better.

Although depression is a state of mind, science has found that a chemical imbalance in the brain accompanies clinical depression. Often, depression can be treated without drugs. That is to say, if we change our emotional state, such as through spiritual practices, we can change our brain chemistry. In more severe cases, though, we need medication to restore a healthy chemical balance. Untreated or poorly treated depression can have tragic outcomes, as was the case with my brother.

I wish that when my brother had come to see me the night before he ended his life I could have given him the holy name instead of just sympathy. I wish I’d known about the philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita and could have given him knowledge of the eternal self. I wish I’d known that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and that He is our dearmost friend and ever well-wisher. I wish I could have consoled him with this spiritual knowledge.

He still would have needed his medicine and therapy. But I think Krishna consciousness would have given him a reason to go on. I pray that wherever he is he will come in contact with Krishna consciousness and be able to progress toward his ultimate spiritual goal.

Enlightened Compassion

Since we aspire to be servants of the Lord, it is important that we not take a casual or dismissive attitude toward catastrophes and say, for example, “It’s just a fight among the materialists” or “People are just suffering their karma.” Were this to be the full extent of our response to these events, I think we would be deficient in our devotion to God. Why do I think this way?

Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad-gita (6.32) that a devotee should feel universal empathy. Srila Prabhupada translates this verse as follows: “He is a perfect yogi who, by comparison to his own self, sees the true equality of all beings, in both their happiness and their distress, O Arjuna!”

This verse, among other meanings, recommends a kind of universal empathy. In his purport Srila Prabhupada stresses the point of empathy: “One who is Krishna conscious is a perfect yogi; he is aware of everyone’s happiness and distress by dint of his own personal experience. In other words, a devotee of the Lord always looks to the welfare of all living entities, and in this way he is factually the friend of everyone.”

Devotional Empathy

We find another explicit, powerful call for devotional empathy in the Bhagavatam (6.10.9): “If one is unhappy to see the distress of other living beings and happy to see their hap-piness, his religious principles are appreciated as imperishable by exalted persons who are considered pious and benevolent.”

This is how we can apply such empathy in the case of the recent terrorist attacks:

First, we can imagine what it would have felt like for us to have been on one of the four planes that were hijacked and destroyed, or in one of the three attacked buildings. There is ample information available so that we can be quite specific and explicit in imagining the experience.

Second, we will probably have to honestly admit that we would feel significant discomfort, pain, or anxiety in such a situation. If we are capable of deep empathy, if we are able, as Srila Prabhupada states, to understand the experiences of others by comparing them to our own experiences, and we are “factually the friend of everyone,” then we experience true Vaishnava compassion.

In other words, we should not be more detached from the suffering of others than we are from our own suffering. We should not arrogantly dismiss the anguish of others, as if we are beyond anguish. A devotee who is truly transcendental to material suffer-ing, and who would not have suffered at all in one of those four airplanes, or in one of those three buildings, would be a most exalted pure devotee and as such would feel great compassion for the fallen conditioned souls. Those who are not compassionate, and who dismiss as trivial or unimportant such great suffering, are not actually demonstrating advanced detachment in Krishna consciousness, but rather they are demonstrating a disturbing lack of common empathy, and are in fact embarrassing our movement by their neophyte response.

Identifying Evil

ISKCON devotees oppose animal slaughter. How can we not oppose human slaughter? If one says, “It’s their karma,” then we reply that the same is true for cows and other animals that are slaughtered. If one says, “This is just a political fight among materialists,” I would reply that in the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna clearly distinguishes between acts in the different modes of nature, and He specifically describes certain acts as not only materialistic, but as evil and demonic. It is surely evil and demonic to murder thousands of innocent persons. Let us remember that in Vedic culture we are required to treat people according to their innocence and guilt in this life. God will take care of their past karma. We are not allowed in Vedic culture to abuse people, harm or kill them, and then say, “It must have been their karma.” Vedic culture is not moral anarchy in the name of karma. We should be above mundane morality, not below it.

During the Bangladesh War in the early 1970s, Srila Prabhupada strongly condemned the Muslim atrocities against the Hindus, and indeed against other Muslims, in Bangladesh. Of course, in every country on earth there are tragedies, and the devotees will benefit themselves personally, and greatly enhance their preaching, if they are able to achieve a real state of deep empathy, not in the cause of materialism or the bodily concept of life, but as a symptom of a budding self- realization that leads one to feel liberated compassion for all suffering beings.

Godly Qualities, Ungodly Qualities

Disciple [reading from Bhagavad- gita As It Is, 16.1]: “The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: ‘Fearlessness; purification of one’s existence: cultivation of spiritual knowledge; charity; self-control; performance of sacrifice; study of the Vedas; austerity; simplicity; nonviolence; truthfulness; freedom from anger; renunciation; tranquility; aversion to faultfinding; compassion for all living entities; freedom from covetousness; gentleness; modesty; steady determination; vigor; forgiveness; fortitude; cleanliness; and freedom from envy and from the passion for honor—these transcendental qualities. O son of Bharata, belong to godly men endowed with divine nature.”

Purport, by Srila Prabhupada: “In the beginning of the Fifteenth Chapter, the banyan tree of this material world was explained. The extra roots coming out of it were compared to the activities of the living entities, some auspicious, some inauspicious. In the Ninth Chapter, also, the devas. or godly, and the asuras. the ungodly, or demons, were explained. Now, according to the Vedic rites, activities in the mode of goodness are considered auspicious for progress on the path of liberation. …”

Srila Prabhupada: The defect of modern civilization is that people have no idea about liberation. Nor have they any idea about the transmigration of the soul. At its very root, this civilization is defective.

People are thinking just like animals. The dog is thinking. “I am this dog body. I am born a dog and I’ll die—everything finished.” He cannot realize that “I can also take on a human body.” He cannot realize that.

So in this modern civilization, people cannot even realize that there is a next life and we can go to other planets, such as the moon. Sarva-ga: the living entity has the tendency to travel widely, to many situations. Artificially people are trying, but they do not know the proper method. As Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita. yanti deva-vrata devan pitri yanti pitri-vratah/ bhutani yanti bhutejya yanti mad-yajino ’pi mam “Those who worship the demigods will take birth among the demigods; those who worship the ancestors go to the ancestors; those who worship ghosts and spirits will take birth among such beings; and those who worship Me will live with Me.”

People do not know this. Although they have got the tendency to go to higher planets, they do not know how to go. They do not know positively w hat are the positions of the various material planets or Vaikunthaloka, the spiritual planets. They do not know about liberation or the next life. transmigration—nothing of the sort. Simply like dogs.

Now, consider this point—whether I’m speaking rightly or wrongly. I know I am speaking the right thing, but if you disagree, then you can discuss it amongst yourselves.

Disciple: Srila Prabhupada, many people think that “liberation” has nothing to do with spiritual realization. It just means you can do anything you like—free from any consequences.

Srila Prabhupada: That is rascaldom. That is rascaldom. For instance, in a prison, if a prisoner thinks that he can do whatever he likes, that is rascaldom. That is going on. This modern civilization is rascaldom. Everyone is seeing daily that he’s under the control of material nature. and still he thinks that “I can do whatever I like.” That is rascaldom.

Disciple: The so-called Christian conception of salvation is based not so much on attraction for the transcendental reality as on fear of hell.

Srila Prabhupada: This may be the official Christian conception, but the mass of people are not even afraid of hell. They do not even know what hell is. Because they are living in hell already.

You remember the humorous story. When a miner in Sheffield, England, heard some preacher’s description of hell, he remained undisturbed.

“So hell is damp and dark? Oh, well, it is damp and dark here in our mine. What is the difference between hell and our mine?”

When the miner was informed that in hell there is no newspaper, only then did he become disturbed.

“Horrible! How can anyone live without a newspaper?”

So people’s hellish condition is here now. Earlier, some of you were describing about the hellish conditions in factories. So people are working in factories—what do they care about hell?

“Even if I go to hell. I will get a good salary, that’s all. Money is required. Then I can drink nicely.”

But the transcendental reality is here also. Krishna’s standard is here. But this transcendental qualification, abhayam sattva-samshuddhih, fearlessness and purification of one’s existence—”What is that?” It does not appeal to people. It does not strike them at all. And yet in the Lord’s estimation, these qualities are the high qualities. Is it not?

“Fearlessness and purification of one’s existence.” the Lord requires of us. But who is fearless? Everyone is fearful. Fearlessness is a godly quality, but today who understands it? Ahara-nidra-bhaya- maithunam ca: rather, all that people understand is eating, sleeping, mating, and defending, or fearing. This is animal life. To eat, to sleep, to have sex, and to become fearful—this is animal life. And so Krishna says one has to become fearless. But who cares about it? People are thinking that to become fearless means to keep a gun. Of course, that is also one way. [Laughter.]

And as for purification of one’s existence, here also people do not know anything. When someone falls sick he wants to go to a doctor and become purified. But his whole life is impure—that he doesn’t know. You see, Because people’s very existence is impure, they are subjected to birth, death, old age, and disease. That they do not know.

Hands Off My Pesto!

I walk into the kitchen, where my seventeen-year-old son and his friend are making a snack—using the pesto I had painstakingly made the week before with fresh basil from our garden. I had picked a large stainless steel bowl full of aromatic leaves and had even been stung by a bee collecting nectar from the flowering buds. Despite my swollen finger, I had carefully prepared a large quantity of pesto ready to offer to the Lord.

Since I had made so much, I froze some to be used during the winter. So to see the boys using the pesto I had kept as a special winter treat, I snapped at my son. I told him he should have asked me first before using things in the freezer. If he wanted pesto, he should have gone out to the garden, picked some leaves, and made his own.

After my harsh words to the dumbfounded boys, I felt very ashamed and angry with myself. “What kind of reaction was that?” I asked myself. I reacted to my son like a miser. “Is that the mentality I want to cultivate?” Since our thoughts at death transport us to our next body, I could well be on my way to the body of a squirrel, who diligently collects nuts for the winter and protects them carefully, just as I had done with my pesto. As an aspiring devotee, I recognized the folly of my mentality and prayed to Krishna to help me correct my misguided thinking.

With tears in my eyes, I remembered Prabhupada’s words to a disciple who had asked about married life. Prabhupada replied that when a householder cooks prasadam, he should go outside and loudly request, “Does anyone want prasadam? Please come.” He should do this three times, Prabhupada said. And if no one replies, then he can eat.

When the disciple heard Prabhupada’s answer, he thought that perhaps Prabhupada had misunderstood the question, so he asked again. Srila Prabhupada gave the same answer.

Why out of all the things in the scriptures about married life did Srila Prabhupada choose this particular instruction to capsule how married couples should live? In light of the pesto incident, I’m pondering Prabhupada’s words, trying to understand how important those instructions are for a householder’s spiritual life.

Before getting married I lived in a women’s ashram for five years. I had a sleeping bag and a footlocker filled with my possessions. I could have been packed and ready to move in about five minutes. After I got married and had a child, my family’s household possessions gradually increased. Our first move out of the temple community took a couple of trips in a station wagon. For the next move we rented a small trailer, for the next one a big trailer. If we have to move again, we’ll need a large moving van.

When living as a single woman in the temple, I didn’t worry much about my maintenance. Our needs were simple, our wants few. We depended on Krishna to provide everything, and He clearly did. As my possessions increase, my anxieties about protecting them increase too. In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna describes the mentality of a person devoid of God consciousness: “So much wealth do I have today, and I will gain more according to my schemes… . I am the lord of everything. I am the enjoyer. I am perfect, powerful, and happy. I am the richest man, surrounded by aristocratic relatives. There is none so powerful and happy as I am.”

My reaction in the kitchen today borders on this kind of thinking. It is a warning signal to me that something is awry in my consciousness. I want to have a deeper understanding of what created my response, the quick anger and the feelings of strong attachment for a container of pesto.

I grew up in a fairly stable and functional family. My mother was frugal. My parents worked hard to save money to send their three children to college. My mother denied herself and her children the frills of life to give us what she thought was important: a good education. She taught me how to forgo immediate pleasure for long-term gain. I’m grateful to her for that lesson. But she also taught me to be afraid of not having enough. I developed a mentality of lack and limitation, neither of which is spiritual. For the Lord and His devotees there is only unlimited abundance.

The Inexhaustible Pot

To illustrate the unlimited nature of the Lord, Srila Prabhupada told the story of a boy from an impoverished family. One day the child’s brahmana teacher asked all his students to bring some food for a program. Hundreds of people were to attend. Since brahmanas received no pay for their services, to ask charity from their students was quite befitting.

When the little boy asked his mother what he could bring to his teacher, she said that they were too poor to provide anything. On seeing her child’s disgruntled face, she suggested he go to the forest to find Krishna, who is known as Dina Bandhu, “the friend of the poor,” and ask Him to help.

The child left for the forest in search of the Lord, repeatedly calling out, “Dina Bandhu! Dina Bandhu! Please come!”

When the Lord did not appear, the child cried piteously. Then, because of the child’s intense desire, the Lord appeared before him.

When the child expressed his desire, Krishna told him to return the day of the program. He would supply yogurt. The boy happily left and told his teacher that he would bring yogurt. The teacher thanked the child for his offering.

The day of the event, the child returned to the forest to find Krishna, who appeared and gave him a quart of yogurt. The child took the yogurt and presented it to his teacher.

Seeing the small container of yogurt, the teacher snatched the yogurt and exclaimed with indignation,“What? This is all you have brought? There will be hundreds of people here!”

Angered, the teacher threw down the pot, and the yogurt spilled out. But when the teacher picked up the container, he saw that it was still full. The teacher again dropped the container, spilling the yogurt, but to his amazement it remained full. From this he could ascertain that it was spiritual. As Srila Prabhupada says, in spiritual arithmetic 1 - 1 = 1. Krishna is never diminished.

Giving What Krishna Gives

Meditating on this pastime, I reflect on how a devotee should never be afraid to give in charity. It is the duty of a householder to give in charity. Giving softens the heart and destroys the illusion that the money or thing is mine. In reality any possession we have belongs to Krishna, given by Him to be used in His service. As we use the gifts and opulence in His service, He gives us more and more.

If we squander the resources the Lord gives us, or use them to enjoy ungodly sense gratification, we can expect to see lack and limitation. We see evidence of this fact in the current state of affairs. Mother earth has the capacity, by Krishna’s grace, to supply unlimited resources to the world. But because of the lack of God consciousness and the misuse of her abundant gifts, people are suffering in so many ways.

Every experience in life contains an opportunity for us to learn and grow, as long as we are open to learning. When situations in my life evoke negative emotions like anger, greed, and fear, I know I need to take time out and ask Krishna to help me understand the lesson.

Today’s experience inspires me to pray to Krishna to have a giving heart and to be free from the fear of lack and limitation. And the next time I make pesto, I’ll go outside and loudly shout, “Does anyone want prasadam? Does anyone want prasadam? Does anyone want prasadam?”

How Scared Should You Be?

By choosing service to Krishna over service to material illusion, we can progress toward fearlessness.
I pull out the stack of mail from our mailbox and bring it into the house, where I plop it down onto the kitchen table. I begin the ritual of sorting out the few important items from the plethora of junk mail and catalogs. The cover of Newsweek captures my attention with the headline “How Scared Should You Be?” Below the headline is a picture of a man wearing a gas mask.

I sit down holding the magazine, debating whether I should subject myself to the contents. Hadn’t I already had one sleepless night after listening to a radio program that was about the very real danger of biological and chemical warfare? To increase public paranoia, it related how a suspected terrorist had asked farmers in Florida how to operate crop dusters.

I think about the advice I’ve been giving to parents of children suffering increased anxiety since the September 11 attacks. Foremost I recommend, “Keep them away from the media.” Srila Prabhupada once said of a news magazine that it made maya (illusion) seem real. I contemplate those words now as I hold a copy of Newsweek.The crumbling of he 110-story World Trade Center towers, the mass carnage, and the suffering of thousands people seemed real enough. Yet while I listened to others describe the events, what I heard most often were the words “surreal” and “dreamlike.”

Maya means “that which is not,” an illusion. I always liked the sound of the word illusion—the richness of the syllables as they rush into one another like ocean waves. And I have a fond association with the word. My great-uncle was a magician, a master of illusion. Once, when I was a young girl of perhaps seven, he asked me to be his assistant in his magic show. I excitedly accepted the offer. While on stage I would hand him things when he asked. When I handed him several small balls, he put them into his hand and passed a handkerchief over them, and they disappeared. He took his hat off, and there they were. Then he asked me to hand him a saw, and he cut through a wooden box with a woman inside. I held my breath and closed my eyes, fearing the worst. But she came out whole.

After the show I begged my uncle to tell me how he did it.

“A magician never reveals his secrets,” he replied, giving me a big hug.

Despite my begging and pleading, he kept silent, and I finally relented.

I never figured out that illusion, but I did come to learn from the Vedic scriptures and Srila Prabhupada that our lives in this word are also a kind of illusion—nothing more than a long dream of some number of years. So death is an illusion too, because death is only for the body; the real self, the soul, never dies. He can’t be burned, crushed by debris, stabbed by a terrorist, or blown up by a bomb. He can’t be poisoned by chemicals or infected by anthrax. Our illusion is to think we are indeed this temporary, destructible body. This original illusion perpetuates all other illusions and misconceptions in this world.

Because we are all so entrenched in thinking we are the body, and that our relatives and friends are their bodies as well, we derive happiness in the company of those we love and feel deep sorrow in their absence. And while we may even intellectually accept the premise that we are souls separate from my body, that acceptance doesn’t lessen the pain and sadness we feel when the bodies of others are destroyed.

So would I be compassionate if I told the families of terrorist victims that it’s all an illusion, just a bad dream? The crushed and burned bodies of the victims in the twin towers didn’t reappear unscathed like the woman from the magician’s box. They’re still buried under tons of debris. And their loved ones, bearing the burden of loss, suffer with anguish and despair.

Lessons On Death From The Lord Of Death

To help myself find the right mix of compassion and philosophy, I turn to a historical narrative in the Srimad- Bhagavatam. Once Yamaraja, the Lord of death, appeared as a small boy to instruct relatives crying inconsolably over the dead body of their king. Yamaraja appeared as a child because children can be candid without having to observe social etiquette. They can speak the truth without offending others. I have many recollections of my son, when he was a preschooler, telling my relatives, “You shouldn’t eat dead animals.” Had I told them that, they would have felt offended. But the innocent and unpretentious nature of my child allowed them to hear the instruction from him. Similarly, appearing as a child, Yamaraja could deliver transcendental knowledge to the widowed queens.

Knowing what to say to someone who recently lost a loved one is difficult. Part of the problem is that most people have little real knowledge about what death is and what happens at death and beyond. All we can usually say is how sorry we feel that the person has died. Beyond that, most of us feel awkward and become silent. We depend on greeting cards to say something comforting. Because we feel so inept at knowing what to say, we may even avoid seeing a grieving person until they have “gotten over it.” Yamaraja, however, has perfect knowledge, and his words could pierce through the misconceptions of the grieving party.

First Yamaraja establishes that Krishna, the Supreme Lord of the creation, is in control of everything that happens. Nothing happens accidentally or haphazardly. He is completely competent to destroy and protect. In making sense of the recent terrorist attacks, we can remember that not a blade of grass moves without the sanction of the Lord. If the Lord wants to protect you, no one can kill you, and if the Lord wants to kill you, no one can protect you.

It is easy to see the Lord’s hand when you or a loved one are saved from death. A woman who worked on the top floor of the World Trade Center was fired from her job the day before the attacks. Another was spared because her babysitter was late. But what about those who perished? It’s not that the Lord wanted to kill them like some vindictive God; rather, for various reasons (which God knows), the time was up for those who died. This is a difficult point to understand. But Yamaraja instructs the queens about karma, and from his instructions we can understand that people perished at the World Trade Center because they were destined to.

Next Yamaraja tells the queens about the nature of the soul. The soul, not the body, is who we are. The queens have never seen the real person who resided within the body of the king. They only knew the body, the covering for the soul. And since the body is still lying in visible form before them, why should they lament?

Krishna uses similar logic in the Bhagavad-gita when speaking to grief-stricken Arjuna. Arjuna is about to fight in a war to retaliate against injustices perpetrated against himself and his family. Although cousins, the Kurus have tried to kill Arjuna’s family, the Pandavas, out of envy and greed through many heinous acts similar to those of the modern-day terrorist. Arjuna, however, becomes overwhelmed by bodily attachment to friends and relatives on the opposing side, and in his weak moment tells Krishna he can’t fight the battle. Krishna then asks Arjuna a rhetorical question: If Arjuna thinks his relatives are their bodies, made of material elements, why feel bad if they are killed? They’re nothing more than chemicals that come together for some time to produce life symptoms and are then destroyed. And if Arjuna thinks his relatives are the soul within the body, he still has no reason to grieve, since the soul is eternal and never dies. Such logic helps Arjuna give up his depression and perform his duty as a warrior.

Yamaraja then tells the grieving queens about the Supersoul, an expansion of the Lord who accompanies us to the material world. He is the Lord within the heart. He directs us in many ways to assist us in our journey in, through, and out of the material world. It is this merciful expansion of the Lord whom some identify as the small, still voice within. The more we can live in harmony with godly principles, the more we will be in touch with the Lord’s beneficial instructions from within the heart.

Yamaraja then tells the queens, “As long as the spirit soul is covered by the subtle body, consisting of the mind, intelligence, and false ego, he is bound to the results of his fruitive activities. Because of this covering, the spirit soul is connected with the material energy and must accordingly suffer material conditions and reversals continually, life after life.” This instruction implies that the only way to become free of suffering in this world is to become permanently free of the material body. Death frees us from the gross material body, but not the subtle body. The subtle body carries us to another material body at death. Only when the subtle body becomes completely free of material desires and inclinations to enjoy separate from the Lord can the soul regain his original spiritual form.

This instruction prompts the question of how to become free of material desires. That is the subject of much of the Vedic literature, including the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam. In the present age, known as the age of quarrel and hypocrisy, the recommended process for becoming free of unwanted desires and habits is to chant the Lord’s holy names. Krishna has invested His full power into His names, and we can derive the greatest benefit from chanting them. Chanting the Lord’s holy names is our ticket out of the material world.

Finally, to punctuate his points to the queens, Yamaraja tells the story of two kulinga birds. Once a hunter captured a female kulinga bird in a net. The bird’s mate helplessly looked on, feeling hopeless and defeated. While he lamented for his mate in that condition, the hunter took the opportunity to take aim at the kulinga bird and strike him with an arrow.

After narrating this story, Yamaraja told the queens that nothing could bring back their dead king. In the mean time, their own lives were being swallowed by all-devouring time.

The queens could then understand that everything material is temporary and prolonged grief was a poor use of their precious life. After hearing the boy’s transcendental discourse, the relatives became freed of their illusions and obtained transcendental peace and happiness. Yamaraja showed real compassion for the queens of the dead king. He didn’t offer them flowery words to console them, but rather spoke truth that freed them from the illusion of being their bodies.

While the instructions of Yamaraja are very potent, before repeating them we may have to consider time, place, and circumstance. His talks took place in a time when people were more advanced in spiritual understanding and more philosophical by nature. Most people in this age would find it difficult to respond to direct philosophy. In helping others, it is important to acknowledge their humanness. Part of grief counseling is to allow people to grieve and express their feelings. The goal, however, is to bring them to accept the reality of whatever has happened. Counseling therefore requires sensitivity and compassion. In my work as a therapist, the combination of empathy and philosophical teachings proves most successful for helping people through their grief. I recommend this strategy to everyone who wants to help others in their loss. It affords people the opportunity to become free of illusion and fear.

The only way to become truly fearless is to take shelter of the Lord. So when pure devotees of the Lord are asked, “How scared should you be?” they can without reservation answer, “Not at all.” On the other hand, someone still convinced that he is the material body and that the goal of life is to enjoy in this temporary world will answer, “I am very scared.”

We can decide to be fearless or fearful by the choices we make at every moment. Krishna consciousness is the gradual process to free us from the fear of death. If we choose to serve the Lord and be under His protection, we will become fearless by His grace. If we chose to serve our material body and senses and ignore the Lord, we will be fearful, because we will have no sense of our eternal identity or real shelter. The choice is ours.

Real Humility

What is it? How do we get it?

In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna lists humility as the first item of knowledge. And Srila Prabhupada writes that without humility we cannot gain knowledge. Until we know that we don’t know, why should we want to learn? Lord Jesus taught that the meek will inherit the earth and those who put themselves last are first in the eyes of God.

Yet I fear humility. Are the humble full of self-loathing? Are they willing victims? Do opportunity and success pass them by?

If humility invites exploitation, why do scriptures praise it? Lord Caitanya says, “A person with all good qualities is bent down with humility, like a tree full of fruit.”

So, I consider that maybe, just maybe, I should think about developing humility. The problem is, I’m not sure whether or not I really want it, I don’t understand how I’ll feel and act when I have it, and I haven’t a notion of how to attain it. At least that’s how I felt sometime ago when I decided simply to concentrate on serving Lord Krishna and let this humility business take care of itself. Krishna would find a way to help me to understand it and achieve it, I was sure.

Do we need humility? Srila Prabhupada writes many times that persons who have seriously taken up the practices of Krishna consciousness don’t need to work separately at developing good qualities. For example, they’re automatically vegetarians and need not join a vegetarian society. Still, Krishna’s devotees carefully select food to make sure it’s free from meat, fish, and eggs and suitable for the Lord’s pleasure. The devotee does, therefore, make an effort to be a vegetarian as part of his or her service to the Lord.

Similarly, since we’re offering ourselves to the Lord, we must examine ourselves to spot arrogance. Part of our spiritual advancement requires making sure our mind is pure, a fit temple for Lord Krishna.

Once I was eating in the dark, watching a devotional video. The excellent banquet, however, contained some putrid fig chutney. I gagged when I tasted it and rejected the rest of the meal. Arrogance is putrid fig chutney. Despite a person’s good qualities, when we detect conceit we recoil and keep our distance. Can I truly say to Krishna, “Accept me, Lord, as your servant,” when conceit covers and permeates all I do, say, and think?

I’m motivated to define and develop humility because Krishna demands it, and because false pride is painful. Respect and adoration have a high price. Others envy us, or they praise us, but with ulterior motives. We may be respected for our qualities or accomplishments, but abhorred for our pride in them. We delight in the sweetness of respect, but suffer the bitterness of insult. One who has received honor finds dishonor worse than death, Krishna says.

So, I’ve come to the point of at least tentatively deciding I want to be humble. At least I understand that humility is a prerequisite for the unlimited, eternal happiness of love of God that I do want. But what exactly is humility?

Humility Is Honesty

I know that humility is not a lie, because another saintly quality Krishna mentions is truthfulness. To say that I’m poor when I’m rich, ugly when I’m beautiful, would not be humility, nor would admitting I lack certain qualities—that’s just a statement of fact. Giving others credit and acknowledgment and minimizing our own accomplishments and abilities, while within we long for respect and recognition, is not humility. This false humility (while often a social necessity) is a lie, and one the liar rarely believes. Those who hear it believe it less.

Part of real humility is accepting the whole truth: I have this possession, or quality, or ability by the grace of God, Krishna. He can give and He can take away. Even if I say that He is simply administering the law of karma—giving me what I’ve earned by my past piety—still it is a gift. That I cannot hold on to my assets one moment longer than He desires proves I’m not the ultimate possessor.

If my assets are Krishna’s, then my pride should be for Him. I should be proud of His cleverness or wealth or talent, a part of which He is allowing me to exhibit on His behalf. (Of course, I have to actually be using it in His behalf to feel this way. I can’t simply say it’s His and then try to use it only for myself.) At every moment I should feel dependent on Krishna to give me everything I have, as well as my ability to think, feel, and act.

Krishna supplies my knowledge, my memory, my attractiveness, my wealth, my ability to remember Him in times of trouble. My determination to keep my promises to Him comes by His grace. If He likes, He can easily test me beyond my limits, or remove my strength, whether physical, mental, emotional, or even moral and spiritual.

Krishna’s devotee Arjuna discovered that everything he was proud of was actually the Lord’s. Arjuna, a prince and an unparalleled warrior, was the best archer in the world. He had single-handedly defeated entire armies. His bow was a gift from the greatest of the devas, Lord Siva, and his quiver never emptied. By the grace of Indra, ruler of heaven, Arjuna had traveled to other planets. By the grace of Lord Krishna he had journeyed beyond the material world. He was handsome, powerful, intelligent, and learned, and had wealth exceeding that of the richest man of modern times. His wife was like a goddess, his son a great hero.

Then Krishna left the earth to return to His own kingdom, and Arjuna couldn’t even string his famous bow. He used it like a club to pound his enemy. His quiver emptied, and the undefeated hero found himself the loser at the hands of untrained fighters. Arjuna concluded that the Lord had withdrawn abilities that had seemed an integral part of himself.

All I have is Krishna’s gift. I discover that this truth isn’t a step to devotion, but an integral part of it. And it is sweet beyond either the false assertions of incompetence or false pride in borrowed ornaments.

Humility Is Grateful

Humility is more than an ongoing understanding that everything is the Lord’s. Saintly, pure devotees often speak of their unworthiness and even wretchedness. But my experience with “honest introspection” is as painful as my experience with pride, or more so. I see, meet, and shake hands with my faults, relive my mistakes, and have at least a glimpse of my irritations and worse from others’ point of view. I feel some of the pain I have caused others. And I know my evil motives of lust, anger, greed, envy, and vengeance.

To stay in moods of self-assessment is difficult. When in them, we may approach friends, family, and the Lord to ask forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” When we’re wracked with revulsion at ourselves, such humility can seem like torture in hell.

Yet those who are pure in loving devotion to Lord Krishna are always joyful, living with a thrill at every moment. Just as real humility must be truthful, it must also be joyful. Clearly, torturous self-abnegation is also a pretense or shadow of humility.

The pain we feel when seeing our sinful nature comes from pride and self-love. We think we are great, but our faults shame us. Thomas Merton writes, “For the saints, when they remember their sins, do not remember the sins but the glory of God, and therefore even past evil is turned by them into a present cause of joy and serves to glorify God.” In real humility, our sense of unworthiness is eclipsed by the wonder and happiness of understanding that Krishna has blessed us despite our faults.

Although I knew something was brewing for my birthday last year, I expected only a cake at the home of my son and daughter-in-law. To my surprise, many devotees from the community where I live gathered to offer me gifts and share a feast. Their love was like many waves of pleasure, at least in part because I felt gratitude that it was far beyond what I deserved. How little we feel such happiness when we think we deserve it! Rather, proud of our own qualifications, we may deprecate what we receive. But if we consider that we have no merit, then even the smallest thing done for us will bring great satisfaction.

In Sri Caitanya-caritamrita, we read of Madhai, who was born in an elevated brahmana family but became a criminal. He and his brother not only committed every imaginable crime, but they scorned religious people.

One day Nityananda, the Lord Himself, came to ask the brothers to reform and to chant the name of Krishna. In a drunken rage, Madhai tried to kill Nityananda. Yet the Lord showed him mercy and forgiveness. Astonished, Madhai repented. When he fully accepted Lord Nityananda’s mercy and love, his pain of remembering his sins turned to ecstasy, the symptoms of his happiness obvious to everyone. That the Lord had mercy on such a person as himself gave him happiness in Krishna, rather than shame born of wishing he were a great person.

Just as humble persons are always aware that all their assets are God’s gifts, they also know that those gifts are given by God out of pure love, and not because they deserve them.

Humility Is Joyful

Prabhupada defined humility as not wanting respect from others. The humble person is ready to offer all respect to others and doesn’t want any in return.

Full renunciation of the desire for respect, however, comes when we relinquish all sense of proprietorship over our “rights.” The Christian writer C. S. Lewis states, “Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, the more often one will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered.”

Do we own the right to have others speak to us with deference? Do we own our time, so that we can claim that others impose on it? If we are dealt insults, if we’re cheated, if our plans are ruined, our desires trampled, what will it matter if our time, body, possessions, and life itself belong to Krishna? Ultimately He is in control of what happens to us. It is a matter of surrender to His will. And if we place our trust and shelter in Him, then the things that normally rile the ego will not touch us.

I had planned one day to write this very article. In fact, I had been planning for two weeks to have a Sunday free for writing—not an easy task with my schedule. Yet that morning I got an emergency call and so spent the day babysitting, cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes full of baby vomit. During the moments when I remembered, “My time and life are Yours, Lord. I’m just a lowly servant who is to follow Your will,” then I found great joy in setting aside my plans—even my plans for devotional service—as He directed.

A humble person, reposing all feelings of kinship in Krishna, takes little notice of how others should treat him or what he deserves. He is content and even joyful in all circumstances. The only right the humble insist upon is to be counted as Krishna’s servant, however insignificant.

After all, a humble servant feels honored to take trouble for the master. Do we respect someone willing only to serve the beloved in good times, or someone who vows faithfulness “for better or for worse”? If to serve the Lord He wills that I be treated unfairly or forced to undergo hardships, that should be my happiness.

Young men and women willingly risk life and health to serve their country in the military. Wounds, capture, lifelong disfigurement or handicaps, make them feel proud to have taken the trouble to repay their country. Such “pride” is the happiness of the humble.

One who shuns all respect, therefore, is not without the happiness that comes from material honor. Rather, he or she gets many times that satisfaction from the pride of being the Lord’s servant, in however menial or difficult a situation. The satisfaction is so great that in comparison the positive or negative dealings of the world are of no consequence. Those caught up in the ownership of many “rights” in this world cannot understand the inner happiness of a pure devotee of Krishna.

Achieving Humility

After some research and contemplation, I feel I have a better idea what humility is. It is honest: Everything belongs to Krishna, so He gets the credit for what I have and what I do. It is grateful: Whatever He gives me is as great as I am unworthy. It is joyful: Being Krishna’s servant is so wonderful that I’m happy to do whatever will please Him, even if a materialist sees me as unfortunate or exploited.

How do we get this grateful joy of true humility? We begin by submitting ourselves to a spiritual master. To claim that we are God’s servant is easy; the test is whether or not we can serve a servant of God. The bona fide spiritual master instructs us in accordance with the scriptures and other saintly persons. He also lives in obedience to his own spiritual master. And his orders are founded in love of Krishna as well as love for his disciples.

When serving our spiritual master, we should be ready to do any humble work without compensation or recognition, while seeking the mercy of Lord Krishna.

Our only prayer should be, “What is Your will, O Lord Krishna? Give me the strength to serve Your will. Let me love You and have You in my thoughts always.”

Regrettably, we might still pray for other things and try to bargain with Krishna, as if we were His equals or He our servant, but at least we can know the goal and practice to achieve it.

The Lord lets us know His will from within our hearts and through our spiritual master, the instructions of the scriptures, and the examples of many saintly people. According to our desire to do so, He gives us the determination to work in line with His will.

Our prayer for that determination is as simple as calling on Krishna’s names in a mood of helpless surrender, like a small child calling for its mother. The maha- mantra—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—is simply the names of God and His energy. Yet Prabhupada explains that the mantra is a prayer asking the Lord and His energy to be engaged in His service.

This use of our will to subjugate it totally to Krishna’s is the development of our natural, spiritual humility. In material affairs, such subjugation would be foolish. One who humbles himself to a material master is quickly exploited. But Krishna wants not robots, or slaves, but sons, friends, and lovers. He wants a deep and meaningful exchange of love with devotees who give of themselves happily and willingly. And Krishna also gives Himself to His devotee. He takes the form and relationship the devotee desires. Surrender to Krishna means giving nothing—What have we to give?—and gaining everything. We will surrender only pain and the false pride that causes it. Surrender to Krishna is a humble surrender to peace, satisfaction, and unlimited pleasure.