Culture

Celibacy—Exquisite Torture, or a “Yes to God”?

Complexity: 
Easy

from Back To Godhead Magazine, Volume 15, Number 0102, 1980

The visit of Pope John Paul II to America last fall may come to be remembered most for the strange contrast it presented between the overwhelming enthusiasm shown for the man and the decided lack of enthusiasm shown for what he had to say. Among the unpopular positions espoused by the Pope was his insistence on maintaining the celibacy of priests. On the evening of October 3 he reiterated this position before an audience of seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, a complex of imposing buildings of huge grey granite blocks, where the Diocese of Philadelphia trains its priests. The Pope’s visit here particularly interested me, since a few years earlier I myself had spoken before the seminarians of St. Charles—and on the very same topic.

It is rare but not odd that a Pope should speak before American seminarians, but it is perhaps rare and odd that a Hare Krishna devotee should do so. What the Pope had to say was not unexpected. He stressed the full commitment the life of a priest demands, urged prayer as necessary for priests “to remain in a state of continuous reaching out to God,” and praised celibacy for priests as the “concrete response in their lives to express the totality of the ‘yes’ they have spoken to the Lord.” Naturally he was received enthusiastically, and the seminarians were reportedly “touched” by his speech. My own reception was somewhat more subdued, though respectful. But it is interesting that the Pope did not hear the seminarians voice the protests against celibacy that I—a member of “another religion”—did.

I had been invited specifically to address a class on the topic of revelation. Fifty or so young men in black filled the lecture hall when I arrived. I had thought over carefully what I would say: it must be clear to them that I had no sectarian message. I could speak on the general principles of religion that ought to apply as much to their faith as to my own.

And I knew some of their problems. I knew that the Church was losing priests at an alarming rate, and that there was agitation among the clergy for a married priesthood. Indeed, I had seen some of this turbulence at an appallingly close range: while doing graduate work in religion at Temple University, I had watched as one Catholic religious after another abandoned their vows to take up secular life. Some got married; others simply hit the streets.

I wrote the Hare Krishna mantra on the blackboard and then explained to the class that it was simultaneously a prayer and the prayer’s fulfillment. As a prayer, it begs the divine energy that unites us to God to join us with Him through service, and at the same time it is that union, for by chanting we directly associate with God in the form of His divine names (Krishna the person and “Krishna” the sound are nondifferent). Then I taught the seminarians how to pronounce the words of the mantra and asked them to chant it with me in call-and-response fashion. And then, to my immense delight, we had a wonderful kirtana, as fifty strong voices clearly and vigorously chanted the Hare Krishna mantra with me. After years of lecturing, I could get just about any audience to chant, but this chanting was exceptional; it was robust, spirited, with none of the sectarian reluctance I had feared. It was alive. These were clearly not ordinary men.

After the kirtana, I began to explain how chanting was related to the subject of revelation. Revelation is two- sided: there is the giver and the receiver, and then the receiver becomes the giver to another receiver, in turn. In Sanskrit this process is called parampara, or disciplic succession. Since the All-perfect reveals Himself perfectly, His revelation must be passed down without any change or alteration. For God’s revelation to be potent, it must be preserved intact, in all its original integrity.

How is this possible? The original giver, God, may be infallible, but the receiver is all too fallible. And yet, as I explained, we must understand that the divine revelation is not merely a collection of sentences, not just propositional truth. Memorization and rote transmission are machinelike functions that do not in themselves suffice for transmitting the revelation. God’s revelation—His word—like His names in the mantra, is absolute, and therefore God Himself is given in His word, in His own revelation. For this reason, the word of God possesses a concrete power. Just as a potent antibiotic injected into the bloodstream destroys the agents of infection, so the word of God, injected into the ears of a fully submissive receiver, destroys all his material contaminations, and he becomes transformed into a fitting receptacle, into an unsullied transparent medium. Such a person not only speaks the word of God; he lives it, and living it, becomes the word personified.

Thus the potency of God’s revelation is exhibited through the devotees, who are living exemplars of the purifying power of God. The word that is in relation to God can be received as-it-is only from those persons who are in relation to God. They are the life in which the letter lives. The revelation of God becomes a dead letter, like a law without government, when there are no pure devotees living the life of the letter.

So far, I had their full attention. Now I began to explain the four regulative principles, which are absolutely necessary for a person to observe if he wants to transmit the revelation of God intact. I enumerated: no eating of animal flesh, no indulgence in illicit sex, no taking of intoxicants, and no gambling—and I saw that I was losing my audience. Feet shuffled, eyes wandered ... and then the monsignor, their instructor, announced that it was time for a short break.

He and I sat down together. I wanted to talk with him about meat-eating, but before I could begin to offer reasons why a Christian ought to refrain from animal slaughter, he began to offer reasons why a Christian could indulge in alcohol. This was not an auspicious sign, to say the least, and as I began the second part of my lecture, I was somewhat less sanguine about the spiritual chances of these wonderful chanters. The monsignor, after all, was their teacher.

I spent the second part of the lecture explaining the spiritual principle that it is possible to give up the material activities of the senses not by rigid nullifications or barren abnegations, but only by giving the senses superior engagements in divine service. It is first of all necessary to control the tongue, I explained; only then can the other senses (including the genitals) be controlled. In the Krishna consciousness movement, I told them, we control the tongue by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra and by talking about the transcendental activities of the Lord and His devotees, and we eat only the sacred food called prasada (or God’s mercy), which is sanctified by having first been offered to the Lord. Similarly, the eyes, ears, nose, hands, and legs are all controlled by spiritual engagements in divine service. Our senses are not repressed by such engagements; rather, they become purified by being kept in contact with the divine through active service. And thus our mind, the hub of the senses, becomes fixed in constant remembrance of the Lord, and such recollection gradually reawakens our dormant love for God. When this original love is misdirected, it assumes the guise of material desire, of lust. This is why, when spiritual purity is restored, material desire is not present even in a repressed state, where it can break out at any time; rather, it has been wholly transmuted back into its original and natural form, pure love for God.

I answered a number of questions, mostly concerning the particular practices of Krishna devotees, while they passed around the large bowl of sweetballs (prasada) Ihad brought for them.

After the class was dismissed, about a dozen seminarians lingered behind, all very friendly and inquisitive, and began to question me, mostly about the four regulative principles. I saw that several of them had lit cigarettes.

In the course of our discussion, I finally asked one of the smokers, “Do you really find that impossible to give up?" I wasn’t prepared for his answer—or for the vehemence of it.

“If I could just take a girl out on Saturday night, he exclaimed, “instead of having to sit around here, crawling up the walls, I might not have to smoke!” There were murmurs of assent. And with much bitterness and resentment, they began criticizing the celibacy rule.

The Krishna consciousness movement, of course, has married priests. (I’m one.) But I told them that even married couples restrict sexual intercourse to once a month, and then only if they are trying to have a child. (“Rhythm” we regard as another form of cheating.) One of them said that it sounded worse than celibacy: they clearly didn’t want marriage on those terms either.

I was appalled by the amount of sexual frustration these men were giving voice to. It was wrong. So I started to question them about their life in the seminary, and it soon became quite clear why they were having such immense difficulty. To begin with, they had large stretches of idle time on their hands. And then, they freely read novels and magazines, habitually watched television. All these activities certainly agitated their senses. There was nothing spiritual about their eating habits. It was strictly for the tongue, and they were accustomed to drinking beer and smoking. They had lots of idle time, their senses were kept continuously under the bombardment of materialistic stimulation, and then—they were told to be celibate!

No one could be celibate under those circumstances. They were being cruelly, exquisitely tortured. Then I remembered the monsignor with his perverse syllogism: “Everything God has made is good. God has made alcohol… .” (He made arsenic, too, but you don’t ingest that!) I became angry. It was criminal to do this. These seminarians were not ordinary men: they wanted, and wanted very badly, to dedicate their lives fully to God. But nobody was showing them how. They were living in a way to agitate all their senses, and then commanded to be celibate! Of course they were always falling down, always laboring under a huge load of guilt. No wonder they were so cynical, so bitter and resentful. I wondered why nobody was teaching them. They didn’t even know the practical ABCs of spiritual life. They were being criminally betrayed.

It was so frustrating for me. I had told them what to do—but could they do it in the context of the Church? To chant God’s names and dance with His devotees, to eat the sumptuous feasts of His mercy, to hear and read the always- fresh stories of His activities and pastimes, which fill volume after volume, to let their eyes feast on the gorgeous form of the Lord in the temple ... could they do things like these? I had an overwhelming urge to take these men, right now, out onto the streets to chant. Then, I knew, they would be all right, they would be safe. They wanted a pure life (a rare thing), they wanted to surrender fully to God, they wanted to overcome the powerful “law of the flesh”—and I knew how they could do it.

But here they were, all in black. As we began walking down the long corridor, I asked one of them if there were some spiritually advanced person here he could follow. He shrugged.

“I don’t know.” He turned to his friend: “What d’you think?”

“I don’t know.” Silence for a few paces.

“Hey!” another suddenly exclaimed. “What about Holy Joe!”

“Hey, yeah! Holy Joe!” They began to laugh.

My depression deepened. We walked through the high, deserted halls, our footsteps ringing in the emptiness. The massive stone of the seminary loomed over us.

We stopped at the entrance to the chapel (the one where the Pope would speak a few years later). They wanted me to see it. They were proud of it. But it was huge, dark, and cold. Walls of bone-white marble shone dully. It was like a sepulcher. I shivered and mumbled something polite.

Before I left I told them that I had not come to criticize their religion. But as I looked at their faces, still clearly marked by the purity of their calling, I could only think that they were being horribly betrayed. I do not want to criticize their religion now, either, but I can only honestly report that I did not see there the spiritual energy that the word of God bears when lived by his pure devotees.

With John Paul II there has come hope. He is young, energetic, and is said to have charisma. But the sign of real renewal will not be the protestations of affection, the big turnouts, the cheers, and the applause. It will be when those seminarians embrace their vows not with bitterness and resentment but with joy, enthusiasm, and confidence.

You may not believe such a thing is possible, but I have seen it. I have been blessed to meet a pure devotee of God. Some of us have not been betrayed.

A Leaf, A Fruit, A Flower—Part II

Complexity: 
Easy

Vegetarians are just self-righteous vegetable-killers, some people say, and their milk-drinking implicates them in violence.

Nowadays vegetarianism is becoming popular for various economic, health, and ethical reasons; but spiritual reasons are more difficult for people to comprehend. Some people ask, “What’s the difference between being a vegetarian and being a meat-eater? An animal has a soul, and a plant has a soul, and if you’ve got to kill the plant, then why not kill an animal? It’s the same. You just killed a carrot. The carrot’s dead, and the animal’s dead. So what’s the difference?” Suppose you’re trying to convince somebody to become a vegetarian, and he says that to you. What are you going to say?

Response: There are spiritual reasons, and there are also material reasons. The spiritual reason is that you cannot offer meat to Krishna, and materially, you can argue that vegetables are not as developed.

Rohininandana dasa: Yes. The carrot has a less developed consciousness than an animal. So the amount of inconvenience you put a carrot through is considerably less than that of an animal. That’s clear. You could also reply. “Well, why don’t you eat a human child? If there’s no difference between killing a carrot and killing a cow, then why not eat a human baby?”

Seriously, if you look at a small human baby, there is not much difference between it and an animal, is there? The animal feels a bit of pain, and the baby feels a bit of pain, so we might as well eat the human baby. But of course nobody wants to eat a human baby. “No, no, I couldn’t eat a human baby. They’re very different from animals. They’ve got different potential.” So if there is such a great difference between a human baby and an animal, how much more is there between a cow and a blade of grass or a carrot? Obviously, then, there is a difference in consciousness.

The other reason is that we’re “Krishna- tarians.” We eat only what we offer to Krishna. We’re not exactly vegetarians. We find out what Krishna wants us to offer Him. He says He wants a leaf, a fruit, a flower, or water. This means that vegetables, fruits, nuts, milk, juice, and all kinds of produce can be offered to Him and then eaten.

Question: The Bible says you can offer meat to God.

Rohininandana dasa: Not always. In Isaiah 1.11, the Lord says. “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me? I am full of the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of your fed beasts: and I delighteth not in the blood of bullocks or of lambs or of goats… . Bring no more vain oblations… . Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hateth… . and when ye spread forth your hands. I will hide Mine eyes from you. Yea, when you make many prayers. I will not hear, for your hands are full of blood.” And in Isaiah 66.3:“He that killeth an ox is as he that slayeth a man… . Yea they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations.”

You may cite other verses, where the Bible appears to recommend animal sacrifices, but could it not be that the Bible sanctions animal sacrifices for the die-hard flesh- eaters?

It’s very clear, at least in the Vedic literatures, that God doesn’t want us to offer Him flesh and blood, and even the Christians sense that because if you go to church on Thanksgiving you’ll see wheat, apples, oranges, grapes, and other produce. You never see decorations of intestines and sheep’s heads on the altar. You never see that.

But why not? It means that they can’t think animal- killing is really wonderful. People sing, “We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land.” You go into the church, and there are flowers and all kinds of pleasant things. People in church don’t sing. “We butcher the beasts and spill their blood”! Those unpleasant things—the decaying flesh and the screams—are out of sight and mind, far away in some secluded slaughterhouse.

Now, somebody could say. “Well, you Hare Krishna people are drinking milk, eating butter and cheese, and using ghee for cooking. In a factory farm, when the cow can’t give milk anymore, she is slaughtered for her meat. By drinking milk you are supporting this system. Therefore you should become a vegan like me.” What would you say then?

Response: To get the milk doesn’t mean you have to kill the cow.

Rohininandana dasa: But the vegan will say, “The cow’s milk is meant for her calf, and you’re taking it.” What do you say then?

Our explanation is that if you offer that milk to God, the cow benefits spiritually, even though she’s living on a factory farm. From the Vedic point of view, it is important for human beings to have animal protein, especially if you want to cultivate spiritual life. And that animal protein comes in the form of cow’s milk. Milk is actually the blood of the cow miraculously transformed into milk. The cow eats grass, the grass becomes blood, then the blood becomes milk, which we can drink as it is or prepare in many different ways.

Milk is the most miraculous of all foods. According to the Vedas, milk is meant for consumption by human beings. In fact, the Vedas say that five thousand years ago, cows gave more milk than they do today. It’s incorrect to think that our breeding practices have enabled cows to produce more milk. No, it’s their nature to produce much milk. The calf needs perhaps a tenth of the milk in the udder. And cows can give eight to ten gallons of milk a day. That’s a lot of milk! This extra milk is meant for human consumption, to help develop fine brain tissue.

In Vedic society, every brahmana would have not only a cow but also a bull for plowing the land to produce grains. The cow is like a mother because she gives us milk. She should be protected and taken care of. In the Krishna consciousness movement we have farms, and we look after the cows with great care. In the summer we let them roam in the woods and pastures, and in the winter we house them in barns and take care of them. We don’t kill them.

The Vedas describe the relationship between cows and humans. That relationship is God’s arrangement for human society. If we try to figure things out for ourselves, well get so many imperfect solutions. What is the cow going to do if you don’t milk her? Shell suffer great pain and eventually die. because she must be milked. A cow is actually dependent on human beings.

In the spiritual world, Krishna is taking care of the cows. One of Krishna’s names is Gopala. “He who protects the cows.” Another of Krishna’s names. Govinda, means “He who gives pleasure to the cows.” There is a natural relationship between God and the cows, and also between mankind and the cows.

In the Krishna consciousness movement we live in cities not because we want to. for no one who practices spiritual life likes to live in the middle of a city. We prefer to live in a very simple place, like the villages of India. At least I do! But the reason we’re here is that we’re trying to tell other people about Krishna. And therefore we have to drink the milk that’s coming to us from the factory farms. We don’t agree with their methods at all, but we’re using their products to help bring down materialistic selfishness. And we are confident that the poor cows are greatly blessed when their milk is offered to the beautiful Deities. Sri Sri Radha-Kunjabihari [the Deities in the Detroit temple]. Does anyone have a question or a comment?

Question: Why not be vegans if we’re living in the city?

Rohininandana dasa: That’s a good point, but it’s enough austerity just to live in these cities. We have to compromise in so many ways. Just to drive a car you’ve got to have tires, which are made with animal products. Practically speaking, even though you think that you’re wearing vegetarian clothes, and that everything you have is vegetarian, if you analyze you will find that there are animal products in almost everything you have. The film in your camera is made from gelatin. Even vegetables are fertilized by animal bones. So there comes a point where you just have to not be too fanatical about it.

What we are basically trying to do is remove a thorn with a thorn. We’re using modern technology to change modern technological society. So sometimes we have to compromise by drinking store-bought milk. But by our preaching in the cities, many people are becoming vegetarians, and therefore many cows are being saved. If you convince just one person to be a vegetarian, you’re saving many animals every year.

How many animals and birds do you think an average American eats in a year? Let’s say he eats twelve chickens. Does this sound reasonable? No? More? Double, then? OK. And how many pigs each year? Will he finish a whole pig? Probably. Let’s say he gets through one pig. How many fish? Thirty? How many sheep? Two? How many cows? One whole cow? Two sheep, one pig, a couple of turkeys, twenty-four chickens, thirty fish, and one cow. And he may eat more bizarre things than that! Maybe you’re also saving a few snails, a horse, some squirrels, and a monkey.

If by your influence someone becomes a vegetarian, in one year you’ve saved all these animals. What if that person stays a vegetarian for the next thirty years? How many creatures are being saved? To be really effective we’ve got to situate ourselves in the cities; otherwise, if we were tucked away in the country somewhere, we would only influence a few people. But we do both. We’re in the cities and also in the country. And vegetarianism is just one benefit of our work, because if a person is Krishna conscious, he’s automatically going to be kind and gentle and possess all good qualities.

Question: What’s wrong with eggs?

Rohininandana dasa: Well, first, they’re not the most pleasant things to eat when you think about what they are: female chickens’ menstrual waste products. It’s not such an edible food. Of course, modern nutritionists may say how wonderful eggs are, but eggs are not the most elevated food. And in their natural condition, they should be fertilized anyway. Go to one of these factory farms and see how the chickens are suffering. Sometimes the hens are so cramped in their cages that their claws just grow around the wire. When the “farmers” come to get them out of the cages, they find that their feet are firmly clamped to the wires. And they’ve got so many diseases; it’s an abominable life. I used to work in a place like that. I tell you, it’s abominable.

Comment: Some people call eggs “liquid flesh.”

Rohininandana dasa: Yes. Of course, eating eggs is not as bad as eating flesh, but it’s bad enough. I remember when I was giving up eggs, it was tough because I used to like omelets. I was camping on the side of a mountain, and I got down to my last egg. I thought “Whew! What am I going to do?” I suddenly felt a surge of strength coming—“I’ve got to give this up!”—and I took the egg and I slung it down the mountainside. And I’ve never eaten another egg since. I felt very pleased after that. If you try, Krishna will help you. You’ll get enough protein, you’ll get enough strength, you’ll be able to do it.

Especially nowadays, there are so many vegetarian cookbooks; there are so many ways of understanding good eating. How to mix your grains together—if you mix rice with dal, it increases the potency of both. It is a science. By eating meat and eggs, you get too much protein. Too much protein is bad for you.

Does that answer your question? You can’t offer the egg to Krishna. We’re Krishna-tarians; we offer Krishna only what He wants us to eat. We’re trying to awaken our love for Krishna, which is really the important thing. It’s not whether I’m a vegetarian—that’s coincidental—but whether I am trying to serve God, to please God.

In the ultimate issue, if there’s nothing else to eat, you can eat meat If you’re starving and there’s an animal, you can kill the animal and eat it. This is stated in the shastras. or lawbooks. Human life is actually more important than that of an animal, only because human life enables us to practice self-realization. Of course, if we’re not practicing self-realization, then human life doesn’t have any more importance than animal life.

Srila Prabhupada would often say that without rationality man is just an animal. But if the human being is trying to cultivate spiritual life, then his life is more valuable. If a tiger comes at you, you can certainly defend yourself; Krishna consciousness is practical.

But here in the United States there’s no food shortage. We grow so much grain every year. In her book Diet for a Small Planet, Francis Lappe, a nutritionist, gives amazing statistics about how much grain we grow each year to feed livestock. You have to give the animal thirty pounds of grain to get one pound of flesh. You could eat the thirty pounds of grain quite easily. So it’s very practical. But in today’s discussion we want to concentrate more on the spiritual side of vegetarianism.

Once Srila Prabhupada took a gulabjamun in his hand—gulabjanums are ball-like sweets made out of milk powder that are fried and then soaked in a solution of rose water and honey or sugar. They are very sweet. He popped it into his mouth and said. “We’re eating our way back to Godhead.” So by eating, anyone can make spiritual advancement. That’s a fact.

So try to give all your friends some prasadam [food offered to Krishna]. If you’ve got a grandmother who’s dying in the hospital, take her a little prasadam, and make sure she eats it. It’s said that whoever eats prasadam is guaranteed a human body in the next life. If somebody is destined to become an animal, he will get the opportunity of another human body.

And if you give an animal some prasadam, then that soul will be elevated very quickly through the different animal species back to human life again. If a soul loses his human form, it’s very troublesome for him, because he must go through the different species, and it may be a long time before he gets back to human life. So if you have some leftover food, give it to the birds and other creatures in your backyard. Sometimes we take the water we’ve offered to Krishna on the altar and pour it on the base of a tree so it w ill benefit.

People may think this is madness, but no, it is spiritual. For one in material consciousness, spirituality seems like ignorance, and for one who is spiritually awake, material consciousness is seen as ignorance. In simple words, they say we’re crazy, and we say they’re crazy. So the question is, “Who is crazy?” That’s the question we have to ask—who is actually crazy? Krishna says, “What is night for all beings is the time of awakening for the self-controlled, and the time of awakening for all beings is night for the introspective sage.”

People who don’t offer their food to Krishna have to accept karmic reaction. even if they just kill a carrot. Even if they’re vegetarian, when they kill a carrot they’ve inconvenienced that soul. Maybe in a minor way, but still there’s some inconvenience. Therefore, they have to suffer a karmic reaction. That carrot was living. It had a right to live, and I killed it for my own sensual pleasure, so I’m simply eating a sinful reaction.

No one should be proud: “I’m a vegetarian; I’m OK.” Even a monkey is a vegetarian.

Being a vegetarian is not the Absolute Truth. It doesn’t even save you completely from karma. You will save yourself from a tremendous amount of karma by being a vegetarian, because you won’t have to suffer a reaction for every hair on the cow’s body, but there is still a small reaction for killing a carrot. Offer that carrot to Krishna, however, and there’s no reaction for you at all. The carrot benefits and everyone who eats your offering will benefit. Krishna says. “Whatever reaction there is. Hi take it, because you’re doing it under orders.”

When a soldier kills in war there’s no question of any penalty, because he acted under orders. He might even get a medal. Even if the fight was a mistake—his officer made a blunder—the soldier is not punished, because he acted under superior orders. This is an analogy. We are not saying that soldiers are free from karma, but they are free from the social consequence of their actions. But if a soldier kills somebody in peacetime, he must suffer the penalty, because he has taken the law into his own hands.

Similarly, if we act under Krishna’s direction, and eat only those things He recommends, there’s no karmic reaction, and everyone benefits. Whereas if I start making up my own ideas, even if I’m a vegan trying to do the right thing. I’m still going to create karma. Even a vegan is still eating and therefore creating karma. He may not be inconveniencing cows, but he’s inconveniencing vegetables, which are also living beings. He may also indirectly support animal slaughter by buying food from a store or company that sells animal products. But a person who follows the Lord’s direction by preparing his allotted quota of food and offering it to Krishna benefits everyone.

Why stop at human beings or cows? If you’re going to be humanitarian, why not think of the animals? If you’re going to think of the animals, why not think of the fish’.* If you’re going to think of the fish. why not think of the plants? They re also living. They also feel pain. In India, if someone is building a wall and a tree stands in the way. it’s quite common to build around it. In the West, we just mow anything and everything down. Isn’t that right? If a tree is growing in front of our window and is blocking the sunlight we just cut it down.

But in India, only uncivilized people do such a thing. Sometimes people build their houses around a tree. They make a courtyard for the tree with an open roof for it to get sunshine. The tree also has a right to a little space to live, a little air and sunlight. That’s culture. Why kill anything unnecessarily? And we cut down whole forests in Brazil just to get beef. Whole forests so we can print Playboy magazine and The New York Times. And people chew half of a hamburger and read one or two pages of a fifty-page newspaper and just chuck it all away. No thought of any responsibility! Just by buying a materialistic magazine you’re going to get a karmic reaction for all the trees that have been killed. But if you cut a tree down and you make a book about Krishna, the soul in that tree will benefit, because its wood has been used in Krishna’s service.

And the book is kept Very often in India, the books are wrapped in silk cloth and kept on the altar, and when people want to read they unwrap them very carefully and offer prayers before they begin reading. And those books are passed down from one generation to another.

Does this philosophy sound reasonable? It is reasonable. A religion without reason is just a sentimental thing—”Oh, you’ve got to believe in this. If you don’t believe in this, you’re going to burn.” It becomes fanaticism. But religion must have some philosophy behind it.

Similarly, philosophy on its own is just mental speculation, as when you try to figure things out on your own and become a vegan. It’s a speculation, not based on any scriptural evidence, and therefore it’s not perfect. It may have some degree of truth—there’s something good about most things—but if you want something to be absolutely perfect, then you’ve got to get it from a bona fide scripture, under the guidance of a bona fide guru.

Bhakti-yoga—A Method of Nonmechanistic Science: Part III

Complexity: 
Easy

The term science refers to knowledge we can reliably verify by practical methods. So to study a subject scientifically, we must clearly understand how to use our senses to obtain trustworthy knowledge of what we are studying. This article, which concludes a series from the book Mechanistic and Nonmechanistic Science, examines how a person can take advantage of his innate transcendental senses to obtain direct knowledge of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, who is the ultimate object of study in the science of bhakti-yoga.

One of the basic principles of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is that the Absolute Truth is not an impersonal void but rather the Supreme Person, full of variegated attributes. The Supreme Person, Krishna, possesses unlimited personal qualities, and He also performs unlimited transcendental activities in reciprocation with the innumerable jivatmas (living beings) who enjoy His association in a state of pure consciousness. The goal of one who practices devotional service is to revive that state of pure consciousness and enter Krishna’s personal association.

Service to Lord Krishna can take many forms, but since becoming aware of our relationship with Krishna requires that we first hear about Him. the process of hearing (shravanam) is fundamental. Hearing about the attributes and pastimes of Krishna reminds the materially conditioned jivatma of his own natural relationship with the Lord. Gradually, as the jivatma continues hearing, his desire to know about Krishna increases, and simultaneously his attachment to the affairs ofthe material bodyand mind diminishes.

The philosophy of bhakti-yoga holds that knowledge of the Absolute must descend directly from the Absolute. Krishna is the original source of all material forms, and He is also the source of the literature of bhakti-yoga. This literature consists of scriptures that are either directly produced by Krishna Himself or else written by persons who are directly linked with Krishna in a transcendental relationship. Bhagavad-gita is a scripture of the former type, and Srimad-Bhagavatam and Chaitanya-caritamrita are scriptures of the latter type. As we have already pointed out (BACK TO GODHEAD, Vol. 16, No. 9), the subject matter of bhakti-yoga is preserved and disseminated by a community of gurus and sadhus (highly advanced souls), whose role in the regulation of transcendental knowledge is like that of the community of experts in a scientific field.

All literature is simply information encoded in sequences of symbols, and unlimited amounts of information about Krishna can be encoded in this form. But since Krishna is all-pervading, information about Him differs from information describing ordinary configurations of matter. In our everyday experience we encounter patterns of symbols arranged according to the conventions of a language so as to represent certain events in a limited region of time and space. When we hear or read this information we are able to interpret the coded patterns, and as a result we become aware of a mental image of the events. But this mental image is something quite different from the events themselves.

In contrast, when a jivatma perceives information describing the Supreme Person, the resulting mental images actually bring the jivatma into direct contact with the Supreme Person. Since Krishna is all-pervading, images and sounds representing Krishna are nondifferent from Krishna Himself, and the jivatma can directly understand this identity when free of his material conditioning. Such understanding cannot, of course, be simply a matter of manipulating material symbols; it directly involves the higher sensory and cognitive faculties of the conscious self.

Since this point is quite important, let us explore it in greater detail. According to the philosophy of Bhagavad- gita, nothing is different from Krishna and yet nothing is Krishna except His own primordial personality. This seeming paradox is resolved in the following way: Krishna is the cause and the essence of all phenomena, and in this sense all phenomena are identical with Him; yet the phenomena of this world are merely external displays projected by Krishna’s will, and His real nature is His eternal personality. The Absolute is highly specific, and therefore only certain symbolic patterns, and not others, can represent Krishna. By means of these patterns Krishna can make Himself available to the conditioned jivatma, and thus these material configurations are, nondifferent from Krishna in a direct personal sense. Such configurations remind the jivatma of Krishna, by whose mercy the jivatma soon revives his own higher vision and can see the Lord directly.

This explanation may convey some idea of how the embodied jivatma, restricted entirely to material modes of sense perception, can begin to perceive the transcendental Supreme Person. In the initial stages of bhakti-yoga, the jivatma’s perception of Krishna may seem to be completely dependent on the interactions of matter, but the essence of the jivatma’s experience is not material. We can begin to understand this by considering that matter itself is a manifestation of Krishna and that material perception is simply a limited, impersonal way of seeing Him.

In the highest stage of realization, the reciprocation between the jivatma and Krishna has nothing to do with the material manifestation. This relationship does not depend on the material body of the jivatma in any way, and it continues after the body has ceased to exist. According to the philosophy of bhakti-yoga, the material manifestation represents only a minor aspect of the total reality. There is a higher realm, inaccessible to material sense perception but nonetheless full of variegated form and activity. Since we are concerned here with how a materially embodied person can acquire knowledge, we shall not discuss this higher realm in detail. (Readers interested in this subject may consult Srimad-Bhagavatam and Sri Caitanya-Caritamrita.)

The process of shravanam, or hearing, is complemented by the process of kirtanam, or glorifying the Lord by singing or reciting His names, qualities, and pastimes and by discussing these with others. We have argued (back to godhead, Vol. 16, No. 10) that the process of bhakti-yoga is scientific in the sense that it is a practical method of obtaining verifiable knowledge about the Absolute Truth. In the science of bhakti-yoga, however, the researcher approaches the Absolute with an attitude of reverence and devotion, in stark contrast to the aggressive and exploitative approach prevalent in modern science. By glorifying Krishna, the jivatma can awaken his natural love for Krishna, and then Krishna will be fully accessible to him on a personal level.

One important form of kirtanam is the chanting of Krishna’s names. Krishna has innumerable names, and there are innumerable ways to chant them, but by far the most common way of performing kirtanam is to chant the Hare Krishna mantra:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

The Sanskrit term mantra refers to a pattern of sound that has a purifying effect on the mind. The Hare Krishna mantra consists of two names of the Supreme Person (Krishna and Rama) and one name of His energy (Hara). Grammatically the mantra is in the vocative case, so it is, in effect, an address to the Lord and His energy.

The names that constitute the Hare Krishna mantra are examples of patterns of symbols that directly represent the absolute person and therefore have an absolute, inherent meaning. According to the philosophy of bhakti-yoga, Krishna’s holy names are nondifferent from Krishna Himself, and one who chants and hears these names is brought into personal contact with Him. A person who has awakened his higher sensory capacities can actually perceive Krishna in His name. For others, the chanting of Krishna’s names purifies them by reminding them of Krishna, and thereby brings about this awakening.

One can obtain the results of chanting the holy names of the Lord by using any names that are actually connected with the Supreme Person and that are not mere concoctions of the material imagination. In His Sikshashtaka (Eight Verses of Instruction), Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the great teacher of bhakti-yoga who appeared in India in the fifteenth century, describes the significance of chanting the holy names of God:

O MyLord, O Supreme Personality of Godhead, in Your holy name there is all good fortune for the living entity, and therefore You have many names, such as “Krishna” and “Govinda,” by which You expand Yourself. You have invested all Your potencies in those names, and there are no hard and fast rules for remembering them. My dear Lord, although You bestow such mercy upon the fallen, conditioned souls by liberally teaching Your holy names, I am so unfortunate that I commit offenses while chanting the holy name, and therefore I do not achieve attachment for chanting. (Sikshashtaka 2).

From this statement we see that the conditioned jivatma, benumbed by his preoccupation with the material mind and senses, will initially feel little desire to chant the Lord’s holy names. Yet by regularly chanting the holy names and following the regulative injunctions of bhakti-yoga, the jivatma gradually awakens his transcendental taste for the name and attains the stage of loving reciprocation with Krishna.

Since the goal of one who chants the names of God is to develop love for Him, one must chant with an attitude compatible with this emotion. Caitanya Mahaprabhu described this attitude as follows:

One who thinks himself lower than the grass, who is more tolerant than a tree, and who does not expect personal honor but is always prepared to give all respect to others, can very easily always chant the holy name of the Lord. (Sikshashtaka 3).

Generally a person who has no direct knowledge of the Supreme Person cannot understand at first what it might mean to love the Supreme. But such a person can lay the groundwork for this understanding by adopting a nonexploitative attitude toward the Supreme Person and His creation. Indeed, this attitude is the key to success in bhakti-yoga. For one who wishes to exploit the Supreme, the Supreme will remain unknowable. But if one truly gives up the desire for such exploitation, then the Supreme Person will reveal Himself by His own mercy.

Once, in a letter to Max Born, Albert Einstein declared that his goal was to capture the Absolute Truth. Unfortunately, Einstein went about it the wrong way. The Absolute Truth cannot be forcibly captured by a minute part of the Absolute, but according to the philosophy of bhakti- yoga, the Absolute can be captured by love. Once one attains this love, direct knowledge of the Absolute becomes readily available. Yet, ironically, the development of this love is incompatible with the desire for knowledge or power. Knowledge is indeed a by-product of the process of bhakti-yoga, but it cannot be the goal of that process, for the key to the process itself lies in a fundamental reassessment of one’s innermost goals.

Although superficially this reassessment may seem simple, carrying it out requires a deep insight into one’s own psychology. By bringing the inner self into personal contact with the Absolute, the process of bhakti-yoga enables one to attain this insight. Only by this means can one capture the Absolute—once all desire to conquer the Absolute has been forsaken.

The Yoga of Love

Complexity: 
Easy

One wet evening in 1972, when I was first learning about Krisna consciousness, I sat in a tent leafing through Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Occasionally I looked out gloomily through the rain to see the dim outline of the Pyrenees Mountains surrounding the little green valley in which I was marooned. The rain had fallen steadily for two days without sign of letting up. Even my sleeping bag was wet.

My romantic idea of practicing yoga in the mountains was fast proving to be a dream only. All I could think of was dry clothes and a hot meal. Still, I had my Bhagavad- gita, and I continued turning the pages.

Something caught my attention: “The culmination of all kinds of yoga practices lies in bhakti-yoga. All other yogas are but means to come to the point of bhakti-yoga. Yoga actually means bhakti-yoga, and all other yogas are progressions toward the destination of bhakti-yoga.” (Bg. 6.47, purport).

“Of course,” I thought. “Since the word yoga means to connect with the Supreme, the binding link of that connection must be bhakti.”

Following Srila Prabhupada’s line of thought, I understood that when a jnani absorbed in empirically contemplating the distinction between truth and illusion comes to the point of understanding and accepting that the Supreme Truth is Krishna, he then becomes a yogi. Similarly, when a karmi busy working for material rewards comes to the point of feelingly offering the results of his work to Krishna, he also becomes a yogi.

Prabhupada made it all so simple: karma + bhakti = karma- yoga; jnana + bhakti = jnana-yoga.

I finally understood that yoga simply means to act for Krishna’s pleasure. Either I could sit in my cold tent thinking, “I have no desires, I own nothing, I am nothing,” while secretly clinging to my world, in which I was the central character, or else I could agree, “Yes, Krishna is the enjoyer, the Lord, and my dear friend.” I felt a surge of happiness to think that perhaps I was not alone. With a light heart I lay down in my sleeping bag listening to the steady downpour pelting against the canvas and further soaking the sodden valley.

Dawn came slowly and miserably. I was cold. I was so conscious of my painful body that a long time passed before I could bring myself to continue my reading and contemplation. I could see no end to the rain, which after three days seemed to seep into my bones. There was no question of packing up and trudging off. All I could feel enthusiastic about was cooking a hot meal with my diminishing supplies.

As the pan heated on the camping stove (“Krishna’s stove,” I remembered), with numb fingers I again opened up the Gita. This time it was Chapter Nine, text twenty-six: “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I will accept it.”

In the purport Srila Prabhupada explains that there is a very simple process for achieving perfection: offering Lord Krishna our loving service and “nothing more.”

“This is wonderful!” I thought. “But wait a minute. Although Prabhupada says ‘the process is very easy,’ he also says that the only qualification required is to be a pure devotee who loves Krishna. But I don’t love Krishna. I barely know anything about Him. Basically I just love myself (and I’m not even sure about that), so how can I reach the highest perfection of life in this way? Maybe I should meditate instead.”

I had tried meditating, withdrawing my mind from external stimuli. True, I had temporarily felt some peace by my efforts, but I was always faced with the fact that I had to live in a busy world. To go off and live in a cave in the Himalayas, or even a secluded wood nearer home, was beyond me. And even if I could, I might find myself in the same situation—cold, hungry, and staring bleakly at the rain and meditating “Rain, rain, go away,”

I read on: “But preparing nice, simple vegetable dishes, offering them before the picture or Deity of Lord Krishna, and bowing down and praying for Him to accept such an offering enables one to advance steadily in life, to purify the body, and to create fine brain tissues which lead to clear thinking. Above all, the offering should be made with an attitude of love. Krishna has no need of food, since He already possesses everything that be, yet He will accept the offering of one who desires to please Him in that way. The important element, in preparation, in serving, and in offering, is to act with love for Krishna.”

“Perhaps I could try it with the soup,” I thought. “But still, it’s the love bit that stumps me. Surely Krishna won’t accept my offering, devoid of love.”

But Prabhupada made it sound easy. “Prepare a simple vegetable dish.” I could do that. “Bow down and pray to Krishna to accept such a humble offering.” I could do that too. Certainly my offering would be humble, even if I wasn’t.

“Besides, I’ve got to start somewhere. Prabhupada’s right—the process is easy. Learning the right attitude is the hard part. That might take a long time. Still, with Krishna’s help anything’s possible.”

I followed Srila Prabhupada’s directions and bowed down. “Krishna, please accept this. Hare Krishna.” I felt foolish, not knowing what to say, but deeper than my sense of foolishness was a laughing happiness rising within my heart. Yes, I had done the right thing. Lord Krishna and Prabhupada told me to do it, and I’d done it.

I looked at the soup and began to serve it out. Prabhupada had said serving was also important. I felt he was directing my every move. I was already familiar with the idea of eating in a mood of gratitude to God. But this was different. I had just offered something to the Lord, and now it looked as though He was offering it back. I sipped at the soup.

I knew what taste to expect, because it was a simple vegetable soup. But besides the expected taste, a wonderful thrill began from my mouth down to my stomach—and beyond. My whole being felt electrified. My heart felt it would burst. Something more was going on than a hungry man having breakfast.

I had a sense of what bhakti is about. I was detached from the uncomfortable conditions (I had forgotten all about them), I knew (at least a little) what I was doing and who I was doing if for, and I was absorbed in transcendental thought. Bhakti, the yoga of love, did seem to include all to be gained from other yogas, and much more, because by linking with the Lord and serving Him I could feel His helping hand.

A solitary mystic may gain mastery over some time and space, but unless he awakens love for Krishna, what has he ultimately gained? A little fame, power, or influence. Only bhakti is absolute, because only bhakti links us in a firm embrace with the Absolute Lord.

I gazed at the rain, cheered by the warm sunlight of Krishna consciousness. I no longer felt alone.

The Yoga of the Bhagavad-gita

Complexity: 
Easy

Lord Krishna discusses the major forms of yoga, setting up a hierarchy and saying clearly which one belongs at the top.

When Time magazine ran a cover story on the science of yoga, it reported that "fifteen million Americans include some form of yoga in their fitness regimen—twice as many as did five years ago." Yet one wonders if any of the fifteen million are getting out of yoga what they should. As supermodel Christy Turlington, pictured on the cover as an ardent practitioner, is quoted as saying, "Some of my friends simply want to have a yoga butt." Patricia Walden, a prominent yoga teacher who has made a fortune producing instructional videos, responds to what many would consider a shallow approach to yoga: "If you start doing yoga for those reasons, fine. Most people get beyond that and see that it's much, much more."

Or do they?

The sad truth is that most people are not studying the Bhagavad-gita, traditionally seen as a yoga-sutra, a treatise on yoga. At least in Western countries, aspiring yogis, intimidated by the Gita's Sanskrit terminology, set the book aside to be studied later. Though that response in understandable, let's look at the Gita's teachings on yoga and see why for centuries it has been, and still is, considered among the most important textbooks on the subject.

It should be noted at the outset that the word yoga itself refers to "linking with God." This implies that any genuine approach to yoga should involve the spiritual pursuit, however varied that pursuit may be. For example, in the first verses of the Gita's third chapter, Lord Krishna introduces two forms of spirituality that might be identified with yoga: the contemplative life and the active one. The people of India in the time of the Gita were given to extreme acts of renunciation. Aspiring spiritualists of the age felt that only by shaking off the burden of active worldly life could one approach a life of the spirit. The Gita seeks to correct this misconception. It takes the doctrine of nivritti, negation, so dominant in ancient India, and augments it with positive spiritual action. Thus, Krishna (who is also known as Yogeshvara, or "the Master of Mystic Yoga") teaches Arjuna not so much about renunciation of action, but about renunciation in action. In later Vaishnava terminology, this is the preferred yukta-vairagya, or "renouncing the world by acting for the Supreme." Krishna accepts both forms of renunciation, but He describes the active form as more practical and more effective as well.

Whichever form, or approach, one chooses, says Krishna, detachment from sense objects is mandatory. The difference, then, lies only in one's external involvement with the world. Krishna asserts that contemplative, or inactive, yoga is difficult because the mind can become restless or distracted. He recommends the active form of yoga, which He calls karma-yoga. This is safer, He says, because one still strives to focus the mind, using various techniques of meditation, but augments that with practical engagement in the material world.

Krishna elaborates on how to perform karma-yoga in the sixth chapter, again emphasizing its superiority to mere renunciation and philosophy:

One who is unnattached to the fruits of his work and who works as he is obligated is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic, not he who lights no fire and performs no duty. What is called renunciation you should know to be the same as yoga, or linking oneself with the Supreme, O son of Pandu, for one can never become a yogi unless he renounces the desire for sense gratification. (6.1-2)

Krishna's instruction here is especially useful for us today, living in the Western world. He is saying that we needn't go off to a forest to contemplate our navel. In fact, He says that such endeavors will most likely fail for most of us. Rather, we can achieve the goal of yoga by learning the art of "detached action," one of the Gita's main teachings. Krishna will explain that art to Arjuna and, by extenuation, to the rest of us. The Gita teaches how we can, in modern terms, be in the world but not of it.



Meditation: Restraining The Mind

Krishna explains that both processes of yoga, the contemplative and the active, begin with learning how to control the mind, which is essentially dhyana, or meditation:

When the yogi, by practice of yoga, disciplines his mental activities and becomes situated in transcendence—devoid of all material desires— he is said to be well established in yoga. As a lamp in a windless place does not waver, so the transcendentalist, whose mind is controlled, remains always steady in his meditation on the transcendent self.
(6.18-19)

Such meditation, Krishna admits, is difficult, but one can achieve it through arduous effort:

It is undoubtedly very difficult to curb the restless mind, but it is possible by suitable practice and by detachment. For one whose mind is unbridled, self-realization is difficult work. But he whose mind is controlled and who strives by appropriate means is assured of success. That is my opinion. (6.35-36)

In verses ten through fourteen of the sixth chapter, Krishna elaborates on the "appropriate means," and we begin to see how truly difficult it is to perform this kind of meditation. The yogi must learn to meditate continually, without interruption, in perfect solitude. Free of wants and possessiveness, the yogi must fully restrain his mind. He must prepare a seat for himself in a clean place, neither too high nor too low, covered with cloth, antelope skin, and kusha grass. He must sit in this special place, says the Gita, and learn to make his mind one-pointed, restricting any extraneous thoughts or sensual distractions. The yogi should practice such meditation for his own purification only—without any ulterior motive. Firmly holding the base of his body, his neck, and his head straight, looking only at the tip of his nose, he must be serene, fearless, and above any lusty thought. He must sit in this way, restraining his mind, thinking only of God, Krishna says, fully devoted to the Supreme.

Krishna calls this method raja-yoga, because it was practiced by great kings (raja) in ancient times. The heart of this system is breath control (pranayama), which is meant to manipulate the energy (prana) in the body. Breath control, along with intricate sitting postures (asana), was an effective means for quieting one's passions, controlling bodily appetites, and focusing on the Supreme.

Nonetheless, this contemplative form of yoga, systematized in Patanjali's yoga-sutras and popular today as hatha-yoga, is too difficult for most people, at least if they are going to perform it properly. Krishna says this directly by the end of the sixth chapter.

Still, He recommends elements of contemplative yoga along with the yoga of action, or karma-yoga. And for most readers of the Gita, this can get confusing. Just which is He recommending—the austere form of disciplined sitting and meditation or action in perfect consciousness? Does the Gita recommend hatha-yoga, or doesn't it? Does this most sacred of texts accept the path of contemplation, or does it say that one must approach the Supreme through work?

Indeed, Arjuna himself expresses confusion in two chapters of the Gita: Is Krishna advising him to renounce the world, Arjuna wonders, or is He asking him to act in Krishna consciousness?

A thorough reading of the Gita reveals a hierarchy, a yoga ladder in which one begins by studying the subject of yoga with some serious interest—this is called abhyasa-yoga—and ends up, if successful, by graduating to bhakti-yoga, or devotion for the Supreme. All the stages in between—and there are many—are quite complex, and at this point most modern Western practitioners become daunted in their study of the Gita.

Stages Of Yoga

The question may legitimately be raised why the two approaches to yoga—the contemplative and the active (and all their corollaries)—seem to be interchangeable in one section of the Gita and a hierarchy in another. The answer lies in the Gita's use of yoga terminology, a lexicon which, again, can be confusing. The whole subject becomes easier to understand when we realize that the Gita uses different words for yoga that actually refer to the same thing: the various yoga systems are all forms of bhakti-yoga. The differences are mainly in emphasis.

Bhakti-yoga is called karma-yoga, for example, when, in the practitioner's mind, the first word in the hyphenated compound takes precedence. In karma-yoga one wants to perform work (karma) and is attached to a particular kind of work, but he wants to do it for Krishna. Karma is primary, yoga secondary. But since the work is directed to God, it can be called karma-yoga instead of just karma. The same principle can be applied to all other yoga systems.

Bhakti, the first word in the hyphenated compound bhakti-yoga, means devotional love. In love, one becomes selfless, and thus, instead of giving prominence to one's own desire, one considers the beloved first. So the second part of the compound (yoga) also becomes prominent—linking with God takes precedence over what the individual wants. The first and second words of the hyphenated compound become one: Real love (bhakti) means full connection (yoga). This makes bhakti-yoga the perfection of the yoga process.

Karma-yoga emphasizes working (karma) for the Supreme, jnana-yoga emphasizes focusing one's knowledge (jnana) on the Supreme, dhyana-yoga involves contemplating (dhyana) the Supreme, buddhi-yoga is about directing the intellect (buddhi) toward the Supreme, and bhakti-yoga—the perfection of all yogas—occurs when devotion (bhakti) is emphasized in relation to the Supreme. The main principle of yoga, in whatever form, is to direct our activity toward linking with God.



Climbing The Ladder

We may first of all, then, observe that the Gita accepts all traditional forms of yoga as legitimate, asserting that they all focus on linking with the Supreme. Yet the Gita also creates a hierarchy: First come study, understanding, and meditation (dhyana-yoga). These lead to deep contempla-tion of philosophy and eventually wisdom that culminates in renunciation (sannyasa-yoga). Renunciation leads to the proper use of intelligence (buddhi-yoga), then karma-yoga,and finally bhakti-yoga.

All of this involves a complex inner development, beginning with an understanding of the temporary nature of the material world and of duality. Realizing that the world of matter will cease to exist and that birth all too quickly leads to death, the aspiring yogi begins to practice external renunciation and gradually internal renunciation, which, ultimately, comprises giving up the desire for the fruit of one's work (karma-phala-tyaga) and performing the work itself as an offering to God (bhagavad-artha-karma). This method of detached action (karma-yoga) leads to the "perfection of inaction" (naishkarmya-siddhi), or freedom from the bondage of works. One becomes free from such bondage because one learns to work as an "agent" rather than as an "enjoyer"—one learns to work for God, on His behalf. This is the essential teaching of the Gita, and in its pages Krishna takes Arjuna (and each of us) through each step of the yoga process.



The Top Rung

The Gita's entire sixth chapter is about Arjuna's rejection of conventional yoga. He describes it as impractical and "too difficult to perform," as it certainly is in our current age of distraction and degradation (known as Kali-yuga). Since the goal of yoga is to re-connect with God, bhakti-yoga rises above all the rest. According to Krishna, Arjuna is the best of yogis because he has devotion to the Supreme Lord. Krishna tells His devotee directly, "Of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all."

This brings us back to the basic definition of the word yoga. The word comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means "to link up with, to combine." It is similar in meaning to religio, the Latin root of the word religion, which means "to bind together." Religion and yoga, therefore, have the same end in mind: combining or linking with God. This, again, is the essential purpose of the yoga process, and the end to which the Gita hopes to bring its readers.

The Yogi in the River

Complexity: 
Easy

Ages ago, Saubhari Muni was so accomplished at yoga that he could meditate underwater. Everything was going fine, until …

To practice yoga, or silent meditation, you first of all need a secluded place. Traditionally, yogis have retired to Himalayan caves, to remote corners of dense, unexplored jungles, even to the depths of an ocean or river. The great yogi Saubhari Muni meditated for many years within the Yamuna River, with only the local fish for company. He was able to do so because he possessed many mystic powers—the sign of a true yogi—and could, like his aquatic companions, breathe underwater.

Why such extreme measures? Because the purpose of yoga is to withdraw the senses from all material engagements and fix the mind on the Supersoul (the form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead who dwells within the hearts of all living creatures). The aspiring yogi must completely abstain from even the thought of sex, reduce and regulate his eating and sleeping, and even restrict what he sees and hears. By extended, uninterrupted practice, the yogi transcends material nature and returns to the eternal spiritual world, the abode of Lord Krishna.

So don’t expect to properly practice the yoga of silent meditation in a city or a suburb or, for that matter, even in most rural areas; there are just too many distractions nowadays. You may practice sitting postures and breathing exercises, trying to improve your health, your aura, or your sexual prowess, and if you like you can call that yoga. But according to the ancient Vedic literature, the sourcebooks of yoga instruction, the purpose of yoga is to fully and continuously restrain the senses and fix the mind on the Supreme Person.

With this purpose fixed in his mind the yogi Saubhari Muni long ago entered the Yamuna River. Surely there he would be undisturbed. There were no attractive girls in designer jeans strutting along the river bottom, no ads for cigarettes, beer, or fashionable clothing to divert the attention, no business-wise yoga instructors crooning that their brand of spiritualism makes one a better executive or a better student or a better lover. No distractions whatsoever. Hardly a sound. Just Saubhari and the river. And the fish.

Poor Saubhari. He was a qualified, sincere, no-nonsense yogi, so well endowed with mystic powers that he could meditate underwater, yet his mind was diverted by a pair of fish. After many years of underwater meditation, Saubhari observed two fish copulating, and feeling the desire to enjoy sexual pleasure awaken within himself, he emerged from the river and went looking for a mate.

From this we can understand that meditational yoga, also known as ashtanga-yoga, although recommended in the Vedic literature as a means of ascending to the spiritual plane, is extremely difficult. We are all by nature active and pleasure-seeking. Most of us find it difficult to sit still even for a few minutes. We want to enjoy life by seeing, hearing, touching, walking, talking, and so on. To abruptly stop all these activities and meditate on God is almost unthinkable. Even such a highly qualified yogi as Saubhari Muni, who lived thousands of years before the rise of our noisy, polluted, fast-paced modern civilization, had a hard time of it.

So why would anyone attempt such a difficult form of yoga? Well, the aspiring transcendentalist, the yoga candidate, usually understands that bodily and mental activities alone cannot bring satisfaction. He has heard from Vedic authorities that we are not these material bodies but are eternal spirit souls dwelling within the body. The yogi wants to free himself from bodily encagement.

In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna teaches that the body is a temporary vehicle for the soul and that after the demise of the body the soul takes a new body. The unenlightened soul transmigrates from body to body in the painful cycle of birth, old age, disease, and death, trying to enjoy life but is ultimately frustrated in every attempt. To become free from this cycle of misery and to experience transcendental bliss, the yogi is advised to reduce bodily activity and to meditate on the Supersoul, Lord Krishna. According to the Bhagavad-gita,the state of mind at death determines our next life. Thus, the yogi who passes away fully absorbed in meditation on Krishna attains an eternal, blissful body in the spiritual realm and never returns to take birth and die in this material realm.

In previous ages many yogis were able to perfect the process of ashtanga-yoga. In fact, Saubhari Muni himself, after exhausting his desire for material enjoyment, completely renounced the life of sensual pleasure, returned to his meditation, and attained perfection. In the present age, however, ashtanga-yoga is more or less impossible, and the Vedic literature recommends instead the path of bhakti- yoga, devotional service.

The purpose of bhakti-yoga is the same as that of ashtanga-yoga: to withdraw the senses from all material activities and to concentrate the mind in unswerving meditation on the Supreme Person. In bhakti-yoga, however, we actively use our senses in Krishna’s service. In particular, bhakti-yoga involves hearing—hearing about Krishna’s qualities and pastimes, about the activities of His incarnations and great devotees, and about the transcendental philosophy spoken by the Lord Himself in the Bhagavad-gita. The bhakti- yogi learns to see everything in relation to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, to see that the material universe is His creation. The bhakti-yogi alsoregularly meditates on the beautiful Deity form of the Lord in the temple. The bhakti-yogi can even employ his tongue in Krishna’s service—by tasting food offered to Krishna and by chanting His holy names.

In this way the bhakti-yogi is always active within the realm of devotional service. He attains the same result as the inactive ashtanga-yogi; but easily and naturally. The bhakti-yogi can live with his friends and family in the midst of modern civilization. In fact, many of the practices of bhakti-yoga are best performed in the company of other devotees—the more the merrier. Far from distracting, the association of devotees is an inspiration for the performance of devotional service. The serious ashtanga-yogi; however, must remain alone. and even then, as in the case of Saubhari, there is a chance of falling away from the path of austerity and renunciation.

The purpose of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) is to make the spiritual association of devotees (Bhakti-yogis) available in every part of the world. ISKCON centers are open to anyone interested in hearing about the Supreme Personality of Godhead and rendering service to Him in the company of devotees. Aspiring yogis can thus attain perfection, unperturbed by the distractions of modern life.

Yoga for a Lofty Goal

Complexity: 
Easy

from Back To Godhead Magazine, #35-03, 2001

A dozen or so students gathered in the assembly room of the college dormitory for an introductory talk on bhakti- yoga. I got their attention and said we’d now do some yoga. About half of them pulled their legs up into some semblance of the lotus position, waiting for tips on breathing and concentration.

But instead of the sound of silence, they heard the sizzle of a small pair of hand cymbals. Eyes opened, jaws dropped.

It didn’t take long, though, before the students got the idea. Soon many were singing along with the Hare Krishna mantra, their faces lit up with smiles.

After the demonstration, I asked the students to tell me what they thought yoga meant. I got the predictable responses, mostly having to do with sitting, stretching, twisting, and concentrating. Someone spoke of clearing the mind of all thoughts. Someone mentioned picturing yourself as “identical with the One.”

“Bhagavad-gita says that yoga means to connect with God,” I began my talk, “and that’s why we chant Hare Krishna.”

Their pleased expressions showed they were losing misconceptions. When people see Hare Krishna devotees singing in the street, they probably don’t think we’re doing yoga. But in the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna teaches us how to make our whole lives yoga. Srila Prabhupada often said that his students were practicing yoga twenty-four hours a day.

Today’s so-called yoga usually aims at a healthy body and a peaceful mind. That’s fine if that’s all you want. But the real purpose of yoga is to reestablish our relationship with Krishna—clearly a much loftier goal. The word yoga means “to connect,” and from it we get the word yoke. Krishna covers various kinds of yoga in the Gita, but they’re all meant for the same thing: to awaken our love for Him.

Bhakti-yoga is not only the easiest type of yoga; Krishna declares it the best: “And of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me—he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.” (Bg. 6.47)

Since the goal of yoga is to concentrate on God, what better way to do that than by bhakti- yoga—serving Him in love? Prabhupada would scoff at the practice of doing fifteen minutes of meditation in the morning and then spending the rest of the day in material pursuits. Bhakti-yogis take their meditation to work. Krishna tells Arjuna to fight and remember Him. “In all activities be conscious of Me,” He says.

Prabhupada taught his disciples to mold their lives so they could never forget Krishna. He gave us a program of morning and evening practices focused on Krishna. He told us, as Krishna does, to offer the fruits of our work to Krishna. He told us to try to chant Hare Krishna always.

After my talk, one of the students, Mira, thanked me for clearing up some confusion.

“I was always attracted to stories of yogis,” she said, “and now I’m happy to hear I can be a student and a yogi at the same time.”

And I was happy to hear she understood.

Advanced Astronomy In the Srimad-Bhagavatam

Complexity: 
Easy

This ancient Vedic text gives an accurate map of the planetary orbits known to modern astronomy.
Today we take for granted that the earth is a sphere, but the early Greeks tended to think it was flat. For example, in the fifth century B.C. the philosopher Thales thought of the earth as a disk floating on water like a log.1 About a century later, Anaxagoras taught that it is flat like a lid and stays suspended in air.2 A few decades later, the famous atomist Democritus argued that the earth is shaped like a tambourine and is tilted downwards toward the south.3 Although some say that Pythagoras, in the sixth century B.C., was the first to view the earth as a sphere, this idea did not catch on quickly among the Greeks, and the first attempt to measure the earth’s diameter is generally attributed to Eratosthenes in the second century B.C.

Scholars widely believe that prior to the philosophical and scientific achievements of the Greeks, people in ancient civilized societies regarded the earth as a flat disk. So to find that the Bhagavata Purana of India appears to describe a flat earth comes as no surprise. The Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad-Bhagavatam, is dated by scholars to A.D. 500-1000, although it is acknowledged to contain much older material and its traditional date is the beginning of the third millennium B.C.

In the Bhagavatam, Bhumandala—the “earth mandala”—is a disk 500 million yojanas in diameter. The yojana is a unit of distance about 8 miles long, and so the diameter of Bhumandala is about 4 billion miles. Bhumandala is marked by circular features designated as islands and oceans. These features are listed in Table 1, along with their dimensions, as given in the Bhagavatam.

From Master to Disciple

Complexity: 
Easy

- how to receive pure knowledge through the Parampara system

In the pages of Back to Godhead (and Krishna.com) you may often come across the term “disciplic succession.” It’s an English rendering of the Sanskrit word parampara. The meaning of the word is simple yet important.

The parampara is the chain of spiritual masters and disciples through which Krishna consciousness is taught and received. In Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna says, “I taught this ancient science of yoga to the sun-god, Vivasvan. Vivasvan taught it to his son Manu. And Manu taught it to his son Ikshvaku. In this way, through the system of parampara, disciplic succession, the science was understood by the saintly kings.”

In the parampara system, then, the original teacher, the original spiritual master, is Lord Krishna, God Himself. The Lord gives perfect knowledge, and that knowledge is handed down from master to disciple. It’s like a ripe fruit handed down from person to person, from the top of the tree to the ground.

In the chain of parampara, each spiritual master has the duty to transmit the knowledge of Krishna consciousness as it is. He is not to add anything, subtract anything, or change anything. He simply has to deliver the message, just as a postman delivers a letter, contents fully intact.

According to the Vedic scriptures, one who is serious about attaining self-realization or God realization or the ultimate goal in life must approach such a bona fide spiritual master. It is not optional; accepting a bona fide spiritual master is essential.

The method of accepting the spiritual master is explained in Bhagavad-gita: one must surrender to him, inquire from him, and serve him. Inquiry alone is not enough. One must humbly submit oneself before the spiritual master, accepting him as a representative of God.

The spiritual master is not God, and any so-called master who claims to be God should at once be rejected as bogus. But the spiritual master is honored as much as God because he intimately serves God through the disciplic chain. Because each spiritual master serves his own spiritual master, all the members of the chain are ultimately servants of God and therefore very dear to God. More precisely, the bona fide spiritual master is the servant of the servant of the servant of God, or Krishna.

This is one of the secrets of the parampara system: to be a genuine master, one must be a genuine servant. The student, therefore, surrenders to the spiritual master as a disciple and serves him, and the master responds by answering the disciple’s questions, enlightening him with transcendental knowledge. For the sincere disciple who has full faith in Krishna and equal faith in the bona fide spiritual master, all the truths of spiritual realization are factually revealed.

The genuine disciple feels everlastingly indebted to the spiritual master and continues to serve him forever. In this way, even when the spiritual master leaves this world, the master and disciple are connected. The disciple continues to serve the spiritual master by following what the master has taught him, and by teaching it to others. Thus the bona fide disciple becomes a bona fide spiritual master, and the chain of succession continues.

Hanuman: The Emblem of Pure Service

Complexity: 
Easy

Sired by Lord Shiva, he uses his great powers in the service of Lord Rama.


Hanuman is easily among the most popular divinities in India. A small monkeylike figure, Hanuman is often portrayed kneeling with joined palms before the Personality of Godhead Ramacandra, Sita (Rama’s consort), and Lakshmana (Rama’s brother). Hanuman is shown sometimes tearing open his chest to show Rama’s image in his heart, other times soaring through the sky with a Himalayan peak in his hand. He is shown long-haired and occasionally five-headed. His hands are often seen in the gesture (mudra) for removing fear (abhaya) and giving benedictions (varada). He is sometimes shown carrying a club, a bow, or a thunderbolt.

Over time, Hanuman has acquired a following not only among Vaishnava groups, who worship Krishna and His incarnations, but among those one might least expect, such as wrestlers, who call him Vajrangabali, or “mighty one with limbs like thunderbolts,” and Muslims to whom he is known as Mo- Atbar Madadgaar, or “reliable helper.”

In the Ramayana, the epic by the great sage Valmiki, Hanuman first appears in the beginning of the fourth book, known as Kishkindha-kanda. For most of that section Hanuman plays a minor role, as one of five emissaries sent by the monkey king Sugriva to discover the identity and intentions of Rama and Lakshmana. Toward the close of Kishkindha, however, it becomes clear that Hanuman is no small character. And as we open the next book (Sundara- kanda), Hanuman tends to dominate the stage, his speed, strength, wisdom, courage, and devotion becoming evident.

In the Uttara-kanda the sage Valmiki tells of Hanuman’s birth and childhood pastimes. As a young child Hanuman once mistook the sun for a fruit. When Hanuman tried to capture the sun, the demigod Indra knocked Hanuman down and broke his jaw with a thunderbolt. Hanuman’s compassionate father, the wind-god, then induced other gods to shower Hanuman with extraordinary boons, accounting for his well-known physical prowess and supernatural abilities. In youth, Hanuman playfully vandalized the ashrama of forest ascetics, who reacted by cursing him to forget his powers until he would meet Lord Rama. Hanuman would then come into his own and use his powers for the ultimate good of all.

Regarding Hanuman’s monkey nature, he was indeed a monkey. Valmiki uses the words kapi, or “tawny- colored,” and vanara, a word originally meaning “proper to the forest,” “forest animal,” and so on, although it soon came to refer specifically to monkeys. Hanuman is traditionally identified with the langur, Presbytis entellus, a creature even today known throughout India as “the Hanuman monkey.”

Hanuman often displayed the monkeylike qualities typical of his descendants. By his own admission, as cited in the Ramayana (5.53.111), he has a monkey’s unending fickleness (nityam asthira-citta) and inability to remain still even for a moment (anavasthita). Yet Hanuman’s monkey nature is a gift from the Lord, and any resulting characteristic that might otherwise appear to discredit him is actually a divine arrangement for his service to Lord Rama.

Though Hanuman has the general look of a monkey, in the Ramayana period—Treta-yuga, hundreds of thousands of years ago—such monkeys were more like human beings. Valmiki makes this clear when he writes about their speech, clothing, funerals, dwelling places, consecration festivals, and so on. Hanuman and the Vanaras, then, were half- monkey, half-human. But they were unmistakably empowered semi- divine beings as well. They could take on any form or, at their will, become large or small. They had all mystic yogic perfections in full. Valmiki writes that Hanuman could leap into the air like a super-powered being.

Impressed by Hanuman’s amazing qualities, many people in India see Hanuman as though a god on his own, independent of Rama. Often he is worshiped as an independent village deity—a protector against ghosts, diseases, and so on. And so in India today two distinct “Hanumans” have emerged: the humble devotee, as he was originally known in the Valmiki Ramayana, and the independent divinity, worshiped without reference to Sita or Rama.

But the scriptures make it clear that Hanuman and the Vanaras are devotees, not gods. Throughout the Sundara- kanda especially, the Ramayana clearly shows Lord Rama’s superior status. There, through beautiful soliloquies drenched in devotion, Hanuman showers Rama with praise again and again. Hanuman is clearly the bhakta, the devotee, and Rama the Bhagavan, the Lord. It is the glory of Hanuman that He serves Rama by going to find Sita, by bringing her Rama’s message, by risking his life at the hands of evil Ravana. Indeed, the entire Ramayana offers tribute to his unswerving devotion to Lord Rama.

Later commentators as well praise Hanuman’s devotion. In fact, while discussing devotees who perfectly represent each of the five rasas, or relationships one may have with the Lord, Sanatana Gosvami, in his Brihad Bhagavatamrita, mentions Hanuman as showing the perfection of dasya-rasa, or servitude. Hanuman is the devotee, the servant of God, par excellence.

Perhaps for this reason, Lord Rama saw fit to bless Hanuman by allowing him to stay in this world to serve Him as long as the glories of Rama are sung. The Mahabharata notes that the immortal Hanuman lives in the Himalayas to this day, chanting the name of Lord Rama in perfect ecstasy.

Hanuman in Chaitanya Lila

When Lord Krishna descended five hundred years ago as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, devotees of Krishna and His incarnations descended with Him to be part of Lord Chaitanya’s lila, or pastimes. One of those eternal associates of the Lord was Hanuman, who appeared with Lord Chaitanya as a physician named Murari Gupta.

In the incarnation as Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Lord Krishna taught the world how to serve Krishna, the original form of the Personality of Godhead. Yet Lord Krishna also has many other Vishnu forms, each with His own eternal devotees. And in the Chaitanya-caritamrita (Madhya-lila 15.142-156) Lord Chaitanya tests Murari Gupta and glorifies him for his exclusive devotion to Lord Ramachandra:

“I requested Murari Gupta, ‘Worship Krishna and take shelter of Him. But for His service, nothing appeals to the mind.’

“Murari Gupta heard from Me again and again. And by My influence, his mind was a little converted.

“He then replied, ‘I am Your servant and Your order carrier. I have no independent existence.’

“After this, Murari Gupta went home and spent the whole night thinking how he would be able to give up the association of Raghunatha, Lord Ramachandra. Thus he was overwhelmed. Murari Gupta then began to pray at the lotus feet of Lord Ramachandra. He prayed that death would come that night, because it was not possible for him to give up the service of the lotus feet of Raghunatha. Thus Murari Gupta cried the entire night. There was no rest for his mind; therefore he could not sleep but stayed awake the entire night.

“In the morning Murari Gupta came to see Me. Catching hold of My feet and crying, he submitted an appeal.

“Murari Gupta said, ‘I have sold my head to the lotus feet of Raghunatha. I cannot withdraw my head, for that would give me too much pain. It is not possible for me to give up the service of Raghunatha’s lotus feet. At the same time, if I do not do so I shall break Your order. What can I do?’

“In this way Murari Gupta appealed to Me, saying, ‘Kindly grant me this mercy, because You are all- merciful. Let me die before You so that all my doubts will be finished.’

“Hearing this, I became very happy. I then raised Murari Gupta and embraced him.

“I said to him, ‘Murari Gupta! Your method of worship is very firmly fixed—so much so that even upon My request your mind did not turn. The servitor must have love and affection for the lotus feet of the Lord exactly like this. Even if the Lord wants separation, a devotee cannot abandon the shelter of His lotus feet. Just to test your firm faith in your Lord, I requested you again and again to change your worship from Lord Ramachandra to Krishna.’

“In this way, I congratulated Murari Gupta, saying, ‘Indeed, you are the incarnation of Hanuman. Consequently you are the eternal servant of Lord Ramachandra. Why should you give up the worship of Lord Ramachandra and His lotus feet?’ ”