Sunday, July 15, 2012

Loving Ourselves, Part 1

One of the most wonderful aspects of our society of devotees in ISKCON is the tremendous level of diversity we all share. Within this diversity of race, nationality, and gender, there is a multiplicity of opinions as to how we should create and make enduring our culture of devotional service together. It is always my hope that within this diversity there is also the requisite respect towards the differences that do exist between us, but that is certainly not always the case, therefore I tread forward with what I am going to say carefully. I deeply pray that the sentiments and ideas I express here going forward does not offend the reader. If I do, I beg your forgiveness and understanding.

The foundation of what I want to say is that we need a deep cultural change within ISKCON. The substance of this change means moving from impersonalism towards personalism. This is not a philosophical issue, but rather an issue of relationship, of community. The history of our relationships, of our communities in ISKCON, have been marred by a deep-rooted impersonalism which has harmed many devotees' lives, and which has prevented ISKCON from being what it could truly be, from what Prabhupada wanted it to be. Many devotees of my generation, and many devotees of generations older and younger than mine, have also expressed this realization.

There is so much we have to do to insure that ISKCON thrives and grows as we move into the 21st Century, but I do not think there is anything more important that in improving the health of our culture of relationships and communities within ISKCON. Without addressing the stones of this essential foundation of our society, all of our aspirations will trend towards an inadequate and disappointing outcome.

I want to frame this essay around a lecture a good friend of mine recently gave. He titled the lecture “Presenting Our Best Offering to Krishna” and he based his lecture around a very wonderful and thought-provoking essay by HH Sacinandana Swami. The name of this essay is “From My Heart: Beloved of God” and can be found online via the Saranagati Newsletter.1

We must first understand that the purpose of our lives as devotees is to learn how to give the best offering of ourselves to Krishna. The very substance of this offering should be of love and affection towards Krishna, with intentionality and meaning in everything that we do.

The profundity of our offering can be so much greater if the love that is its substance is also directed towards our own self. HH Sacinandana Swami has us consider a line from “Prayer of a Lover of God” by Bhaktivinoda Thakur, in which the Thakur says "Let me also love myself who am inclined towards Krishna so that I may attain devotion to Him."2 What does this mean? To my own heart, this is a very common sense statement. If we are parts and parcels of Krishna, who is the ultimate object of our love, then we are also worthy of love. This love must be directed towards our personal reality as spirit soul and servant of the Lord, and not towards our temporary identities as body and mind.

We are called to love all of Krishna's parts and parcels, and that includes our own selves. We are not excluded. Spiritual life, in this sense, comes full circle. We are trying to transcend our narcissistic tendencies, and we have the tendency to do this in a very impersonal and unhealthy way, at the expense of our self, and at the expense of our relationships and communities. We complete the circle when we learn to include ourself in the package of love.
The very meaning of the deepest surrender is rooted in a pure and selfless love towards Krishna and His devotees. In the history of ISKCON, the meaning of surrender, and its practical applications, has often been something different. Often it is translated as “work until you drop.” Who is asking for this kind of surrender? Is it Krishna? Yes, sometimes Krishna is asking from us a surrender which tests and pushes back our boundaries, but is Krishna taking pleasure from the pain that results?

When we have the maturity to understand the bigger picture of our spiritual journey, we understand why Krishna is putting us into such a situation. We experience His love for us as the reason why, and the difficulties that we experience take on a different and deeper meaning.

If this kind of intense surrender is instead based on our own self-imposed expectations, or on the unrealistic expectations of others, then the tendency we have seen is that we will burn out. This is based as well on the tendency that we place on ourselves, and which is placed on ourselves by others, to act as if we were a pure devotee, but we cannot be a pure devotee until we are a pure devotee. Acting in this kind of charade is a big source of the pain we experience in our life as a devotee.

Often this concept of surrender means to forget our humanity. The joke I've heard is that first you become a pure devotee, and then you become a human being. To transcend our identification as a material human being doesn't mean to become inhumane in our devotional lives. The human nature we carry with us features many tools, such as the ability to be selfless and compassionate, which can only enhance our devotional lives if we choose to engage with them.

In his article, HH Sacinandana Swami quotes from an article by HH Bir Krishna Goswami, entitled “Love Yourself.” HH Bir Krishna Goswami writes:

I am writing about this subject matter because many devotees have contacted or talked to me about this mental state. When I hear devotees talking like this it causes tears to come to my eyes because I know that all the devotees are very, very dear to Krishna.

Even though ontologically we may be small-we are important to Krishna. We are not small in Krishna’s eyes.

Take the story of Gopa Kumar in the Brhad Bhagavatamrta for example. Krishna was feeling so much love for Gopa Kumar and so much hankering for his association in the spiritual world, that Krishna personally became Gopa Kumar’s spiritual master.

You may say that Gopa Kumar is a special devotee, and that is true. But, it is a fact that Krishna personally is the Caitya Guru of all of us residing in our hearts and personally takes the trouble to direct us to our spiritual master.

Even before we take to Krishna consciousness, Krishna is residing in the heart waiting for us to realize that our real happiness is in relating to Him rather than this external energy.

So, Krishna considers us significant, important, etc.

When Gopa Kumar finally goes back to Krishnaloka, Krishna faints in ecstasy upon receiving him. Even Krishna’s associates can not understand what is going on.

Krishna feels the same way about us.

There is an interesting statement in the Isopanisad (Mantra 6):

He who sees systematically everything in relation to the Supreme Lord, who sees all living entities as His parts and parcels, and who sees the Supreme Lord within everything never hates anything or any being.”

So we are parts and parcels of Krishna. Therefore we should not hate ourselves. On the other hand since we are supposed to love Krishna we should love all his parts and parcels and that includes ourselves too!

What does that mean, to love oneself?

It means to picture or visualize or imagine how you want to be. Forget about all the negativity; whether the negativity comes from yourself or from others.

If you think negatively that is what you are meditating on and those thoughts will impede your spiritual life.

Here are some things you can think about:

1. Radha and Krishna love me and want me to be with Them in the spiritual world!

2. Taking care of my spiritual needs will not impede my spiritual progress

3. Taking care of my material needs will not impede my spiritual progress

4. I am an eternal soul, full of bliss and knowledge!

5. I have an eternal relationship with Radha and Krishna and will realize this relationship.

And don’t remain in a situation where others are denigrating you. You owe it to yourself and to Krishna to reject situations that are unfavorable for Krishna consciousness and accept favorable situations. Have positive spiritual self-esteem!

It is not maya to take what we need in our Krishna conscious lives. It is not maya to find the proper situation in our Krishna conscious lives to make the best offering of ourselves. It is not maya to have a positive sense of self-esteem to ourselves in our Krishna conscious lives. Again, I feel very strongly that this is common sense, but sometimes it can be quite difficult to discern, either from our own perspective or within the expectations of our community, what we really need to be healthy and happy as a devotee.

We may fear that by taking what we need, we may take too much, and cross that fine line into selfishness based on sense gratification. What is essential for us, and which strikes at the heart of the need for healthy community, is having guides who we can trust, who are very attentive, introspective, and progressive, and who can help us to strike the balance between need and sacrifice in our lives.

Ultimately we have to, as the saying goes, “fly our own planes.” This is not to say that we become bereft or aloof of relationships to authorities in our lives, but that we must also develop a sufficient sense of self-discernment. We have to know, in the fiber of our being, in the shape of our consciousness on a everyday level, when a mood of indulgence may be taking us away from our sadhana and service. This may be a mood of indulgence in our bad habits and illusions. It may also be a mood of indulgence in trying to fulfill the unrealistic and impersonal demands of the devotees in our community.

We have to learn to give ourselves the time of day. If we are just jumping all over the place, trying to be selfless, we may become resentful, because we have deprived ourselves of our needs. If we don't fulfill our real needs, then we set up ourselves to fall back into these patterns of indulgence again and again.

If we can just see the good we have in ourselves, and addressing our relevant needs both material and spiritual will help us do that, then we will be more willing, and be more able, to make sacrifices and to enter into that mysterious realm of surrender. As HH Sacinandana Swami often quotes, from the mind of famed French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "If you want to build a boat, don't just drum up people together to collect wood and assign tasks. Teach people to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
2commentary on Bhajanamrtam, quoted in Bhaktivinoda Vani Vaibhava, volumes 2 and 3, p. 408.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Guides, Gurus and Grounding In Our Spiritual Journey

 My latest from The Huffington Post Religion

Today is Guru Purnima, and this spiritual festival takes on a very special resonance for me this year. Just a few weeks ago, I was formally initiated into the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition at a ceremony at our Radha-Krishna temple in Towaco, New Jersey. To be initiated in this way means to formally accept a teacher (in my case the wonderful Radhanath Swami) by offering vows of sobriety, chastity and commitment (which you can read more about here), as well as accepting a new spiritual name. (I am now Krishna Kishore Dasa, which means the servant of Krishna in his kishore or youthful age.)

During the whole ceremony, I was thinking how incredibly fortunate I am to be formally linked to such an ancient, timeless tradition. My guru or teacher is himself a representative of all of the tremendous and transcendental teachers in our line, which goes all the way back to the original teachings of Krishna Himself.

Each teacher in this line (parampara) earns his stripes, so to speak, by honestly sharing what he has been given by his/her teacher without altering or changing the essence of Krishna's original teachings. Therefore I knew my formal commitment was to a fountainhead of knowledge that was absolutely time-tested and sturdy, and beyond the vagaries of over-imagined speculations, self-serving interests or political games.

Of course, this is not to say that my tradition doesn't value the intellect or the individual expression of the practitioner. We are encouraged to understand the essence of our tradition yet apply it appropriately to the time, place and circumstances which surround us. The example of my guru's guru, A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and his historic transplanting of the Vaisnava tradition to the West in the 1960s, is an incredible example of a teacher in our line who shared the essence without corruption yet with a deft adaptation to the needs of the seekers around him.

These souls who are genuinely seeking spiritual truth and meaning are some of the most sincere, open-hearted, and open-minded individuals you can find on this lonely planet. In my experiences sharing my tradition with many of these seekers, I have had many exchanges of mutual enlightenment and enlivenment, but I have also found a certain frustration.

Many people seeking the realm of the spirit come at their quest with a sense of not being beholden to any tradition, teacher, or even a sense of the Absolute. Their journey is intensely their own, yet very much relativistic. For some this comes from innocence, and for others this is ironically a construct of reality they are firmly adhered to. In the course of our conversations they may appreciate my fidelity to my tradition, yet they remain convinced that their own spirituality can remain untethered, or at best lightly connected, to any one path, and that their imagination and intuition will be enough.

This leaves me deeply conflicted, for while indeed our spirituality is the most intimate thing we have and hold, and no one can force us to choose our proper path, I remain convinced that without accepting a distinct path and teacher who resonates with our body, mind, heart, and soul, we won't actually find the truth we are seeking.

In terms of this relativistic approach to spirituality, I am left with a number of questions. I wonder why some of us must deny the examples of great souls that have come before us? Why must some of us deny the wisdom that is there for us already, from traditions that have been part of our humanity for thousands and thousands of years? We can't really say this wisdom is not true or relevant for us and our times now, and saying so without having researched or experienced this wisdom is intellectually quite weak. You also can't deny these wisdom traditions simply because some of those who have tried to follow them have failed and often exploited others in the process. Bad seeds don't define or deny the essence of the wisdom that is there.

I should make clear that not every person who falls into this relativistic paradigm simply does their damnedest to deny all the wisdom that has come before us, but too often the tendency is to skip around this wisdom without a sense of commitment or discipline. By taking vows and being formally accepted into my own tradition, I can approach the deepest freedom of love of God by working within the structure of my tradition. I have been given shape, sense, and seriousness to my spiritual life that I wouldn't otherwise find from my own imagination or intellect.

I try to make this call as humbly as I can, and if I come across as being above your own journey, please forgive me. Generally I am quite liberal-minded when it comes to spirituality, but in this case some of my conservative colors shine. In any case, I really can't feel strongly enough that we need structure in our spiritual life, and we need a path and teachers who can guide us on our walk across the desert of our heart to our spiritual destiny with God. They have walked this path before us and they can help us to make our walk by avoiding the scorpions and snakes of our own lower nature. Without the merciful guidance of this structure, we will be inevitably lost.

The last vow I took at my initiation was to always strive to be the servant of the servants of the Vaisnavas, which means to always honor and serve all the teachers and great souls who are here before me now, and who have come before us to pass down the essence that has been given to them. To be under the shelter of all of these great souls is the solace of my spirit, for I know that the path that I walk on will take me to the goal.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Barking Dog of The False Ego

 My latest essay at The Huffington Post Religion

Our ego is one of the most intimidating and inscrutable realities we face in our lives. Countless philosophers, spiritualists, seekers and armchair prognosticators have tried to define its parameters and its meaning to our existence. We even have wonderful teachers -- like my friends at Gita Sutras -- attempting to actualize and excavate the nature of our ego for our most positive spiritual benefit.

Some would also rather do away with the whole idea of the ego altogether, but according to the teachings of the bhakti-yoga tradition, that is not possible. The Bhagavad-gita and countless other wisdom teachings of the bhakti tradition teach us that we are eternally individual spirit souls, currently going through a materialistic bodily experience. We always have an ego, or existence as a unique, individual being, but what we have to watch out for is our "false ego."

One of my teachers has explained the concept like this: We have two dogs in our heart. One is our actual ego, our reality as spirit soul, and one is the false ego, or our false identification with our temporary material body. Both dogs are barking to get our attention, and whichever one we pay attention to the most, or feed the most, becomes dominant in our consciousness. Or, as the Cherokee proverb says:

There is a battle of two wolves inside us all.
One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority, and ego.
The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.
The wolf that wins? The one you feed.

Our false ego disguises itself as our best friend, when it is actually our greatest adversary in our spiritual journey. It is the voice in our consciousness which makes us think we must be the center of the universe, the repose of all prestige, and when we don't get these accolades we react with all the violence of our envious, prideful, and greedy outbursts, ruining our relationships, communities, and hopes in our own search for the Divine.
At its essence, the false ego creates for us suffering, and according to the wisdom of the bhakti tradition, that is completely antithetical to our natural sense of being. As spirit souls, our substance is made of eternality (sat), knowledge (cit), and bliss (ananda), which is also the very same substance as God. Perhaps the greatest form of ananda we can experience is our direct loving relationship with God through His grace and mercy. How we gain access to this is defined by our practical understanding of our own ego-nature.

As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita:

If you become conscious of Me, you will pass over all the obstacles of conditioned life by My grace. If, however, you do not work in such consciousness but act through false ego, not hearing Me, you will be lost. (Chapter 18, Verse 58)

Vedic scholar Bhurijana Dasa also explains the concept of the false ego very clearly in Surrender Unto Me, his commentary on the Gita:
The false ego ... which is like a reflection of our true consciousness within matter, is the covering over the soul first supplied by material nature and is the juncture between our spiritual identity and our material existence. Any ego-identity in which we imagine ourselves the central figure is acceptable to our perverse consciousness.
Thus the soul, constitutionally Krsna's eternal servant -- full of bliss, knowledge, and eternity -- becomes attracted to the material atmosphere and conditioned by it. He is then strictly controlled by the modes of material nature and experiences the self as if it were made of temporary matter.
The juncture between our false ego and real ego is the juncture between how selfish and selfless we are in our everyday lives, both materially and spiritually. One way to see this is in relation to how we react to people's suffering. When someone suffers, do we feed the dog of our false ego by taking pleasure at their suffering, especially if it is relation to some competitive aspect of our lives, like our career, or do we feed the dog of our true ego by taking their suffering into our own heart, and feeling it as if we were the one suffering. Do we respond with compassion or contempt? Do we step on them further or do we do what we humbly can to uplift them?

Gaining access to our real sense of ego means doing all we can to develop our selfless spiritual character. This is actually our natural self, yet to be selfless in this dog-eat-dog world seems so unnatural, because we choose to absorb ourselves in the schemes of our false ego. This is why spiritual life is such a serious endeavor. We must have an everyday practice, whether it is the chanting of God's names, reading of holy scriptures, and service to our community and the less-fortunate, to help us excavate what is most dear and intimate to us, our real spiritual self.

Every moment of every day we are making a choice which dog to feed. Our spirituality begins and ends with our consciousness, so let us try to become more conscious of the very sense of self and identity we are developing in our lives together.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Homosexuality And Scripture

Q & A with Swami B. V. Tripurari

“Times change and with new information new opinions form, and if they are spiritually reasonable, the task for devotees is to support them with scriptural logic—sastra-yukti—or the logic that supports the essential conclusions of revelation.”

Q. Is being gay a sin?

A. I don't think that any reasonable person would consider “being gay” sinful in as much as the distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior is understood. Sometimes people refer to biblical passages that they say condemn homosexuality but even Christian theologians have offered plausible interpretations to the contrary. For example, regarding the often-quoted verse (Romans 1:26-27) where the apostle Paul denounced homosexual behavior as unnatural, one distinguished Christian theologian comments, “No doubt Paul was unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has apparently very little choice, and sexual behavior, over which one does. He seemed to assume that those whom he condemned were heterosexuals who were acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up,” or “exchanging” their regular sexual orientation for that which was foreign to them. 

Paul knew nothing of the modern psychosexual understanding of homosexuals as persons whose orientation is fixed early in life, or perhaps even genetically in some cases. For such persons, having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up,” or “exchanging” their natural sexual orientation for one that was unnatural to them.” (Rev. Dr. Walter Wink, Professor of Biblical Interpretation, Auburn Theological Seminary)

Hindu texts, on the other hand, are relatively silent on the issue, and when they do discuss homosexuality, it is in relation to heterosexual brahmanas, or priests, indulging in homosexual liaisons. The Hindu dharma sastra describes such behavior as a minor sin; however, it is hardly possible to make a determination as to the religious status of homosexuality in today's world on the basis of a few isolated statements from the dharma sastra. Nor will mere reference to Srimad Bhagavatam's statements concerning spiritually correct “celibate householder sexuality” or the Bhagavad-gita's identification of divinity with dharmic sexuality, serve conclusively in condemning homosexuality. 

Indeed, wholesale condemnation of homosexuality on the basis of Hindu scripture is quite difficult, and given the amount of information on the subject that we have today, which was not available even fifty years ago, such condemnation would not in my opinion be spiritually correct or compassionate.

Therefore, my conviction is that monogamous homosexual relationships are as viable a position from which to cultivate spiritual life as are monogamous heterosexual relationships, and I believe that despite what my guru said decades ago, he would hold the same opinion were he with us today. Since he was with us, a wealth of insight into the nature of homosexuality has come to light, so much that any devotee would do well to carefully consider it when forming his or her opinion on the subject. 

Times change and with new information new opinions form, and if they are spiritually reasonable, the task for devotees is to support them with scriptural logic—sastra-yukti—or the logic that supports the essential conclusions of revelation.

Q. What really bothers me about today's homosexuals is how they wave their gay flag and require everybody to approve of their sexuality. Why should the world appreciate their parade of wrongly directed lust?

A. You might think differently if you were born gay and had to undergo the kind of discrimination that homosexuals have been experiencing for centuries, what to speak of the psychological trauma of “coming out” in our largely homophobic society. The fact is that homosexuality would still be a criminal offence in the United States if it were not for the courage of gay activists. Their flag waving is a cry to be allowed to be what they are without being attacked, jailed, or discriminated against, which was the norm here in America for so long. What's more, in some countries people are still being executed for homosexuality. Sexuality is a huge part of a person's life. To be forced to live in a society where one is routinely mistreated because of his or her natural occurring sexuality is something I would not would wish on anyone.

Q. I am a Hindu and I believe that homosexuals should seek reformation because scripture (the Bible) states that God is not pleased with homosexual relations. The Kama sutra states that the goal of kama, or lust, is procreation. Heterosexual relations serve this purpose but homosexual relations serve only personal sense gratification. Dharma means to accept one's duty in relation to society and God, so how could homosexuality, which has nothing to do with procreation, be considered in any way dharmic?

A. In the Hindu canon there is no condemnation of homosexuality that I am aware of. You profess to be Hindu but are unable to cite any of our scriptures to support your position, not one. Kama sutra is not scripture but it does address homosexuality without condemning it as you have done.

Ultimately everyone agrees that the sexual urge should be harnessed, and different acaryas have tried to help their students do so in different ways. In the mission of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, sexual activity was supposed to be restricted to married life, but our Srila Prabhupada tried to establish a stricter standard, one that permitted sex only for the purpose of procreation. However, the vast majority of his disciples could not follow this standard. Thus in some individual cases he sanctioned sex outside of procreation for married couples. The point is that establishing a standard that students can follow and that helps them to progressively harness this desire constitutes sex that is dharmic and is thus arguably blessed—kamo 'smi. Realistically, whether one is gay or straight this would be limiting sexual activity to within a committed long-term relationship, doing so for the purpose of making advancement in spiritual life.

Furthermore, we are not concerned with trying to please God by following the complex rules of dharma because Krsna is not concerned with this. He says, sarva-dharman parityajya: “Forgo all concerns of dharma and take exclusive refuge in me. I will protect you from all reactions. Do not fear.” Spontaneous love brought about by devotion (bhakti) is the way to please Krsna, and homosexuality being a naturally occurring minority phenomenon is no more an obstacle to bhakti than is heterosexuality. Therefore, I encourage everyone regardless of their sexual orientation to become devotees of Krsna and follow in the footsteps of the residents of Vrindavana. This is the highest dharma—prema dharma.

Regarding your proposal that homosexuals seek reformation. As far back as 1948 sex researcher Alfred Kinsey attempted to document patients who had been converted from homosexuality to heterosexuality during therapy and could not find one whose sexual orientation had been changed. Later, in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association officially ceased classifying homosexuality as a disease, and today's psychiatrists and psychologists almost never attempt to change a person's sexual orientation. All this means that your notion of converting homosexuals into heterosexuals will certainly be a failure.

Finally, just try to imagine growing up and finding that when your young friends began to develop an attraction to the opposite sex you found yourself developing a sexual attraction to the same sex and had learned that you were a queer who could be justifiably beaten up and that there would be no shoulder to cry on at home. Employers (if you could get hired) would fire you if they detected your sexual attraction, which is not something that one can easily hide or that heterosexuals hide (indeed they are encouraged to celebrate it!). Then imagine that you had to pursue your sexuality in the back alley or at an illegal bar and thus ended up being the shady person that society accused you of being and gave you little opportunity of avoiding. The world is still just understanding that they did this to millions of children. Think about it.

Q. Swami, from your writing on the issue of homosexuality it appears that you want to encourage gay people to become devotees. I think that sounds broadminded but I think that the way you are doing it flies in the face of the words of your guru Srila Prabhupada, who was a great and wise man. I like to quote Prabhupada's words on the topic verbatim, and I don't think doing so is narrow-minded. What can possibly be wrong with just repeating what he said? And what he said does not jive with your approach. 

A. The difference between you and Srila Prabhupada is very great. You may repeat what he said (kind of) but you have no ability to change when new information is presented; information that is much more readily available to you than it was to him. What new information? That one born with a homosexual orientation has no choice in the matter, a fact that has come to light only in recent decades. Srila Prabhupada's views on this subject were informed by the prevailing misinformation of his time. He similarly wrote that women were less intelligent because their brain size was almost half that of men which is another piece of misinformation that he attributed to Dr. Urquhart, a professor at the institution he attended in Calcutta. However, unlike you, Srila Prabhupada was able to significantly change his position when new information was presented to him. Being incorrect at times is normal, but what's egregiously incorrect is when a person simply ignores new information and holds fast to outdated ideas despite of it.

Abraham Lincoln was also a great and wise man. He brought about the abolition of slavery in America but he also felt that black people should not be allowed to hold public office. Although once nationally accepted, this idea has in our time been internationally rejected. Still, history does not condemn Lincoln for his latter position but rather lauds him for the former—freeing the slaves. By our standards Srila Prabhupada was an even greater person; not because he held some dated views on various social issues but because he was an empowered pure devotee who was able to free sincere souls from the bondage of material existence. This is what he should and ultimately will be remembered and appreciated for, not for the few dated statements he made about homosexuality.

Q. You say that you know of no passages in the Hindu scriptures that condemn homosexuality, but in his purport to Srimad Bhagavatam verse 3.20.26 Srila Prabhupada writes: “It appears here that the homosexual appetite of males for each other is created in this episode of the creation of the demons by Brahma. In other words, the homosexual appetite of a man for another man is demoniac and is not for any sane male in the ordinary course of life.” How do you explain this?

A. The verse says that when Lord Brahma created the demons they approached him for sex but were ultimately lured away by the twilight, which appeared to them as a beautiful young woman. The text goes on to elaborate on the alluring qualities of youthful women and how attraction to them clouds the mind of the unintelligent. In that section of the Bhagavatam, only one verse mentions the demons' sexual attraction to a male, while the ten following verses elaborate on their sexual attraction to a female. Overall, the demons being discussed were obviously more sexually attracted to a woman than they were to a man (Brahma) which indicates that they were not “gay” as we understand the term today.

It is also worth mentioning that Prabhupada never backed up his stance on homosexuality with any references from scripture. Even in the purport cited, he does not say that the verse he is commenting on says that homosexuality is demoniac. Instead, using the word “appears,” which indicates a degree of uncertainty, he merely offers his own opinion. Elsewhere when discussing the subject he also only cites reasoning that demonstrates that his opinion was based on misinformation. For example, in one place he says that homosexuality is not even found in the animal world; a notion that we now know is incorrect. In this case Srila Prabhupada made an inaccurate statement in support of his position, one that he must have learned from someone else. If we are to take his words as absolute in all respects, as some devotees claim that we must, then we are forced to deny the proven fact that homosexuality is found in the animal species. If not, we must face the fact that the example given by Srila Prabhupada was mistaken. 

If the example used in support of one's reasoning is proven wrong, then one's position on the issue itself is brought into question, especially if that position is not clearly supported by scripture. So to disagree with Srila Prabhupada's opinion on homosexuality is not to pick and choose whimsically, but to do so in the very way that he taught us to do, which is to consider the issue according to sastra. In one discussion of the subject Srila Prabhupada even said, “One should take as it is enjoined in the sastras.” This is what I have done, and as I have already stated, Hindu texts are relatively silent on the issue, so it is very difficult to condemn homosexuality on the basis of sastra.

In conclusion, you have made it clear that you feel homosexual relationships established with a view to progress in spiritual life are not to be accepted in the same way that similar heterosexual relationships are. Your arguments on the subject are basically Bible-based religious fundamentalism, as you could not present any verses from Hindu scripture in support of them. As for Srila Prabhupada, if it were possible I would welcome a discussion with him on this topic and I feel confidant that in light of present times and information available he would be willing to alter his position in agreement with mine. After all, in regards to his gay disciple Upendra he did exactly that: he sanctioned a committed homosexual relationship with a view to help his disciple progress in spiritual life.

See also:
The Essence of Varnasrama Dharma

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Case For Celibacy, Sobriety & Sanity.

Read the full version of my new article at Elephant Journal

I choose not to have sex unless my intention would be to produce a child with my wife. In all other circumstances, I strive for a complete and healthy celibacy. I choose not to take any intoxicants, not alcohol or marijuana, or even tobacco or caffeine. I choose not to gamble, to speculate whatever finances or assets I may have. I choose not to eat any meat, fish, or eggs. I’ve been a committed vegetarian for over seven years now, and I’ve even flirted with veganism on occasion as well.

You may think I’m crazy, fanatical and hopelessly out-of-touch with the natural pleasures of the body and mind that seem to be our birthrights. As a practitioner of the bhakti-yoga tradition, my community, my teachers, and my calling ask of me a commitment beyond the normal, expected and comfortable.

It certainly isn’t easy to follow these regulative principles, but by doing so, I can understand what it means to be a human being and spiritual being and all that combination entails in today’s over-driven and over-stimulated world.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Hindu Response to Gay Rights

From the Religion section at The Huffington Post

I was personally very impressed and moved by President Obama's decision to come out openly and vocally in support of same-sex marriage. For all the guff we throw at him, and not withstanding the obvious political calculations that came along with the decision, his move was a courageous and truly historic gesture befitting the expectations that came along with his ascendancy to the presidency.
The cultural waters in terms of gay rights continue to move and shift in profound and irreversible ways.

I see this as well in the religious communities that I am part of. Recently, my friend Bowie Snodgrass, who is one of the executive directors of the excellent Interfaith community Faith House here in Manhattan, presented a sampling of the liturgy, song, and scripture she and others in the Episcopal Church have been developing for a same-gender blessings marriage ceremony. (For more information, click here to visit the Episcopal Church's "Same-Gender Blessings Project")

Still, within my own tradition (the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition of Hinduism), and within its contemporary cultural expressions, I feel a certain hesitancy to be so supportive of gay rights. Within my own heart and conviction, there is no conflict. But I wonder how I will be perceived by my immediate and extended religious community. Nevertheless, I use this platform on The Huffington Post to bring this conflict into a brighter light, because I think it is part of the larger question of establishing and defining the relevancy of my tradition in the world today.

It is an unfortunate aspect of my experience within the Vaisnava tradition that I have experienced prejudice towards the gay community. Some of this prejudice has been overt, some of it simply a matter of cultural conditioning and unfamiliarity, but in either case, it has always made me quite uncomfortable. I had many gay and lesbian friends when I was an undergrad at the University of Michigan. I imagine I will have many gay and lesbian friends when I began grad school at Union Theological Seminary in the fall. I am naturally comfortable with people of this sexual persuasion, because of the simple fact that, beyond sexual preference, I see no difference between them and me.
Therefore when I encounter prejudice against gay people and gay culture, even if it is not with the intent of malice, it feels abhorrent in the fiber of my being and spirituality.

I feel comforted knowing there are many people of faith who feel the same way I do, and who are trying to come to grips and understand why the prejudice of homophobia can never be supported in any kind of genuine spiritual way. As always, I look to support from the timeless scriptures of the Vedas, the fount of universal wisdom. For example, in the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna states:

The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater (outcaste).

From this passage we understand a very elevated spiritual principle that calls out to our everyday experience. The fact of the matter is that prejudice of any kind has no spiritual foundation. We are called as spiritual people to apply the principles of equality, and to understand how these principles of equality can be applied in the secular world in a common-sense way, so that people do not unnecessarily suffer because of who they are, and so they can be encouraged to understand their real spiritual nature, beyond any conceptions of the physical body.
One may make an argument that gay marriage is not supported by scripture or tradition, but is homophobia ever supported by scripture or tradition? Forgive my ignorance per se if this kind of prejudicial support exists, but even within the scriptural evidence of Hindu antiquity there is plenty to support a nuanced and inclusive culture towards people of same-sex persuasion. To explore such an example, I suggest taking some time to read an excerpt from the book "Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex-Understanding Homosexuality, Transgender Identity and Intersex Conditions Through Hinduism" by Amara Das Wilhelm, which is available at the website of GALVA (The Gay And Lesbian Vaisnava Association).

In his book, Wilhelm explores the reality of the "third sex" (tritiya-prakriti) and its various permutations as we know them today in the LGBTQ community. He reveals how individuals of the "third sex" naturally fit into traditional Hindu/Vedic culture, and how they were not excluded from traditional social customs like marriage and religious customs as well. It was an enlightening read for me, and I imagine it might be for you as well.

In future editions of this blog, I want to continue to explore the issue of prejudice against the LGBTQ community within my own tradition, and how these issues relate to and expand outwards within the spiritual quilt of our humanity. I do no want to shy away from this conflict as I see it, even if it brings upon me misunderstandings and doubts from others.
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Thursday, May 10, 2012

IChant: The Ultimate App

From Elephant Journal

Genius is a multifaceted jewel. It has many rough edges, and it doesn’t care for any mundane norms or compromises.

The package that genius is wrapped in doesn’t necessarily belie what is within but it is the duty of time to reveal that this genius— in whatever forms it takes—speaks to our body, mind and soul in many profound and challenging ways.

I think Steve Jobs was a genius. Of course the nature of Jobs’s character and his integrity as a person are quite complicated. History will see him as the “poster boy” for the troubled, difficult persona of the genius. History will also reveal that, as he expressed it to his biographer Walter Isaacson, his feeling that he follows in a line of innovators that includes Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, was not mere hyperbole. His influence on our cultural expressions, on our connectivity and communication, and in the ways we define ourselves as biological beings in an increasingly technological world is already immense and will only grow more so.

Being a spiritual seeker, my obligation is to see the glass more than half-full when I examine the nature of such a complex and powerful personality.  The Bhagavad Gita tells us that the truly wise person sees everyone on a spiritual level, beyond the body-mind construct which is the general source of all our foibles and follies. While being very clear and honest about the dark side of Steve Jobs, still I can’t help but appreciate the honest sincerity of his ambition, his own spiritual leanings and his desire to create a legacy of ideas and products that speaks to the best of human creativity at the intersection of technology and aesthetics.

What particularly strikes me about him was his attitude towards design.  An early slogan of Apple was that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” This mirrors a saying from my own Hindu tradition, echoed by such great teachers as Mahatma Gandhi and bhakti-yoga pioneer A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, of “simple living and high thinking.” The idea is that only when we simplify, when we clear away the dust that only complicates the obvious truth, will we be able to discover the presence of enlightenment within ourselves and all around us.

In Walter Isaacson’s excellent Jobs biography, Jonny Ive—Jobs’s confidante and core designer during Apple’s incredible renaissance of the last decade— shares his take on this philosophy of simplicity:

Why do we assume simple is good?….Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple you have to go really deep.

We now reap the benefits of this philosophy in so many interesting ways in our lives.  Our personal computers, tablets, phones and our whole conscious existence are full of these little apps that connect us and push us and inform us in ways that deftly ride along the balance of aesthetic and technology that so inspired Jobs’s overall vision.

What exactly is an app? To put it roughly, it is a little program which shapes our daily life in a particular way.  We can just see it for what it apparently is, a bit of cutting-edge technology. But I want to go a little bit further, into the depth of complexity, to shine a different light of definition on this whole idea of the app.

Disclaimer: Reading the bio of Jobs and also being the recent purchaser of a wonderful, sturdy, fast and sleek Macbook Pro, I have the inklings of  having become an Apple cultist.  Some of the feelings are not entirely dissimilar to my spiritual practice, for both give one the sense of a particular worldview.  That is why, as I was walking through New York City recently, meditating on my prayer beads, I was struck by the idea that the mantra I was chanting was also like an app and how it was the best app I had in my life.
Krishna and Radha

My spiritual practice revolves around the chanting of the maha-mantra, which is part of the Bhakti (devotional) path of Hinduism. The mantra features three names of the Divine, of God, as known in the Bhakti tradition: Krishna (the masculine aspect of the Divine), Hare (the feminine aspect of the Divine), and Rama (the pleasure reservoir of the Divine).  The whole mantra goes like this:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare

The maha-mantra is, in one sense, a tool in the toolbox of apps that is part of my daily existence as a spirit in the material world. But in the ultimate sense it is so much more. By chanting this mantra, we are taken through the depth of complexity of our own being, allowing us to see and transcend all the illusions that we carry in our consciousness. We come to the simple core of our being, as eternal souls in a loving relationship with God.

While my Weather Channel app can give me a grasp of my environment, and my IBooks Author app can help let loose a real dose of my productive creativity, my maha-mantra app helps me to understand who I really am, at the deepest level of my being. This is an app whose substance is entirely spiritual and which helps me to understand that the substance of my being is also entirely spiritual.  It is the ultimate app to me because it contains the essence of all divinity.

By chanting the names of God—because these names are non-different from the substance of God—one’s being comes directly in touch with God. By being in contact with the vibration of God the dust of the heart, or all of the chains which keep us stuck in the vagaries of our ego, is removed. It is a very simple practice of meditation on sound vibration, yet what can be more sophisticated and wonderful than the presence of God?

It is the ultimate app because it is available to everyone, for free, at all times and is not at all contingent on one’s skin color, sexuality, political preference, or whether one is even spiritually qualified to practice it.  One doesn’t have to be a Hindu to chant the maha-mantra. It enhances any kind of spiritual search because it is a universal app. It connects one to the source, the powerhouse of reality, and is inclusive of everyone.

It is the ultimate app because it’s fully open-source. It can be transmitted to anyone at any time.  Whatever the technology of your being, of your personality, the maha-mantra fits into the system of your life.

It is the ultimate app because, being of eternal spiritual substance, it never breaks down, and it never needs an upgrade.  It’s always in style, and it’s always available.

There have been calls for a “spiritual Steve Jobs”  to appear, to innovate some of the rusted structures of spirituality.  I can certainly agree with this sentiment in many ways, but it is essential to remember that real change begins within our own heart.  The maha-mantra is a tool, a spiritualized lifestyle app, which allows us to come to the core of the real innovation and creativity of our true being.

In the Bhakti tradition it is said that everyone has the responsibility to become a teacher, a guide, a selfless sharer of the essence they are finding. Understanding the real tools, the real apps, of our spiritual life and seeing their immense value in our daily life can help us to become givers of the Divine, of God’s reality.  It can bring us to the simplicity of our being, and allow us to give the ultimate sophistication.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Occupy Wall Street: Don't Dehumanize The 'Evil Banker'

From the "Occupy Wall Street" section at The Huffington Post

As a spiritual person, I have felt aloof from the Occupy Wall Street movement. I have thought about this aloofness a great deal, spoken and dialogued about it, and written about it, but I still struggle to put my head and heart together over how I can serve and contribute to Occupy and within the realm of social justice as a whole.

At a recent panel discussion at Union Theological Seminary, entitled "Being Mad And What To Do About It: What Occupiers And The Occupied Can Learn From Interfaith Dialogue," my frustration was crystallized to a certain extent. As my friend Samir Selmanovic spoke eloquently about the need to deepen our compassionate spirit in our dialogue with the "other," i.e the people who run the machine of Wall Street, and as I heard the responses from Occupiers in the audience who refused to acknowledge the need for any such kind of dialogue, the nature of my own disconnection from the Occupy movement became more clear.

I felt that, as natural and acceptable as it is in one sense to feel anger at some of the entities on Wall Street. the "vampire squids" and "evil bankers," and as natural as it is to respond to being dehumanized by such entities by dehumanizing them in return, as a spiritual person my engagement with this immense problem must go deeper. It must include yet transcend the rage, exasperation, and frustration all of us feel.

One can say that these "evil bankers" don't deserve a compassionate dialogue, yet compassion is multifaceted. It is not just good vibes, but the strength of providing what is truly needed for someone to give up their selfishness and illusion, even if that means the strong arm of justice and the clear light of truth.

One can say that because of the power dynamics at hand, because of the immense wealth and influence that Wall Street has in this discussion, that to engage with them is fruitless. Yet there is nothing more powerful than a spiritual response to injustice and inequality. If you doubt what I am saying, just look at the lives of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, among many others. The divinity behind their voice was what gave them the power to make such immense change.

I can relate to the struggle Thomas Merton went through in the 1960s, as he lived his life as a Christian monk yet was deeply drawn into the monumental struggles of civil rights and nuclear war. As a committed spiritualist, his response to these issues required an incredible amount of depth and clarity. One passage, from his book "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander," elucidates my feelings towards how we should view the "Other" or our "enemy" much better that I could ever say:

The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not his castigation, humiliation and defeat. A pretended nonviolence that seeks to defeat and humiliate the adversary by spiritual instead of physical attack is little more than a confession of weakness. This may be easy to talk about in theory. It is not easy to practice, especially when the adversary is aroused to a bitter and violent defense of an injustice which he believes to be just. We must therefore be careful how we talk about our opponents, and still more careful how we regulate our differences with our collaborators.
I was particularly impressed by what author/Wall Street veteran Monika Mitchell said during the panel at Union. She made it very clear (and also does so through the powerful book, Conversations With Wall Street, that she and her husband Peter Ressler wrote) that Wall Street is full of living, breathing, even ethical human beings who are deeply affected by the transgressions that have happened, and who deeply desire to bring the integral and the personal back into the culture of Wall Street.
I was also moved by a comment Samir made, in which he wondered and called out for people to minister and counsel to the people within the crypt of Wall Street itself. I told him of my friend Rasanath, whom I have lived with as a monk for the past three years, and whose remarkable experience of giving up a lucrative career with Bank of America to live as a monk has given him the perspective and calling to become a spiritual guide for many people on the Street.

The only response to any injustice I can give, as a spiritual person, is a humane response. It is a response which doesn't ignore the injustice at hand but which transmutes into something that actually moves and heals. I ask our fellow Occupiers to consider the language, tone, and motivation of their response, so that we can deepen our ability to affect the change we seek.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Why Being a Hindu Has Made Me a Better Catholic

My debut piece at the Huffington Post

I recently took a pilgrimage to Corpus Christi Church on 121st Street off of Broadway, here in New York City. This is where Thomas Merton, the great Catholic monk/mystic/author, was baptized, formally beginning a spiritual journey which has captivated and inspired millions of truth-seekers over the past few generations, myself included.

It was a special enough moment to be there, but a certain deeper resonance came as I stepped back out into the street, as I suddenly saw my past, present and future all before me. My past, raised in the Catholic tradition by my family in Detroit, as represented by Corpus Christi Church and Merton, faced me in my present situation, as an aspiring Hindu minister in New York City. I turned to my left to see the potentiality of my future, as represented by Union Theological Seminary, where I am currently applying, and where I hope to find an experience to harmonize my spiritual aspirations with my concern to be a servant to create justice in the world.

I was reminded that we owe a tremendous debt to that which has shaped us, to those who have helped to form us. We can forget this so easily, when the cult of our own individuality oversteps its boundaries. I was once again reminded that what I appreciate most of all in my own spiritual journey is gaining a greater and more loving acceptance of where I have come from, from the sacred roots of my family.

The Catholic faith of my youth planted within me the seeds to seek the truth. Now the tables have turned, as my experience of the incredible vistas of Hindu theology and practice has turned a shining light back to where I was before. In fact, I see that where I was before is very much the same as I am now. My Hindu faith has made me a better Christian.

Even as a child, the stories and wisdom I received in church and in catechism spoke to me of a profound yet simple reality: God is a person who knows and loves me dearly and deeply, and that I am also a person who can return that love in a very personal and unique way.

As I began to study the great Bhagavad-Gita, I found out that my seemingly childish impression of a personal and loving God was not actually so. It was steeped in the deepest truth. The theology of the Gita is immense and all-inclusive. The reality of the Divine is explained in three ways: God is His all-pervasive, transpersonal essence, the guide or conscience within our heart, and also a distinct individual. It is His unique personal feature which the Gita describes as being the preeminent of these three aspects.

The Gita climaxes with this passage, in which Krishna, the original Personality of God as described in Hinduism, tells his friend Arjuna that:

Always think of Me, become My devotee, worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.

I remember hearing, as a child, that God was always with me, seeing what I was doing, understanding my heart. There was never a moment where I felt threatened by this. Instead, I simply felt like I had a dear friend who would always be with me, and who would always help me, and whom I felt I could love in return. As I entered into the Bhakti faith I began to experience this simple reality in all its depth.
The path of Bhakti which I follow is a system of connection, or yoga, with God, based on the idea of loving, devotional service. Real devotional service is the giving of one's body, mind, and words to the service of God. In the Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, a classical 16th century devotional treatise, we read that:

"When first-class devotional service develops, one must be devoid of all material desires, knowledge obtained by monistic philosophy, and fruitive action. The devotee must constantly serve Kṛṣṇa favorably, as Kṛṣṇa desires."

The Hindu diaspora is filled with examples of such fidelity, including A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who braved the rigors of old age to bring the Bhakti tradition to the West at the age of 70 in 1965. In my exploration of my Christian roots, I come across the same mood in St. Francis of Assisi, who understood very deeply that to truly serve means to be an instrument of God. St. Francis wrote that:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive

It is in St. Francis's particular example that I understand that Bhakti is not exclusive to any one path or faith. Bhakti means devotion, love, surrender to the will of God. My own understanding of it as a practicing Hindu helps me to see its reality as the foundation of my Christian heritage as well.
As I pray and meditate and call God's names, it takes me into the memory of the examples before me, of my great-aunt chanting the rosary with daily and deep devotion in the living room of my childhood home, and of my grandfather taking to the Detroit airwaves in his youth to say the rosary as well.

These connections, sacred and sustaining to me, is where I really feel I have become a better Christian through my Hindu practice. It has allowed me to honor a desire in my family to carry forward a torch of devotion to God that transcends any cultural boundaries or differences.

Without the grace and knowledge I have received in my practice and life as a Hindu minister, I would not be able to approach my heritage as a Christian in such a meaningful way. This reality leaves me with a grateful heart, and a desire to go deeper into this harmony, to honor where I have come from, where I am now, and where I am meant to go.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Heart of Mantra Meditation

Prayer Beads

One of my favorite passages in the Bhagavad-gītā is where Krishna, the personification of the Divine, tells his stricken warrior friend Arjuna that:

For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his mind will remain the greatest enemy. (Chapter 6, Verse 6)

Of all the pearls of wisdom we try to teach our students at our Gita Circle student club at New York University, this is one passage that really seems to stick out in a very visceral, practical way.  The Gita is a book of everyday reasoning, a treatise of spiritual technology designed to help us take a step back from the world in order to engage with it further, as the great sages from the Himalayas to Walden Pond did for many ages before we tread upon this world.

Nowhere is this reasoning more intensely felt when we stop our everyday scheming and dreaming to ask some pertinent questions: What is my mind? How does it work? How does it exist? Why does it seem unable to focus when I need it to? Who is the “I” that is observing the mind?  Our mind is more powerful, and with a much deeper memory than any visionary device from the labs at Apple or Google.  It is considered the “sixth sense”, intimately linked to how the rest of our senses interact and respond, for better or for worse, to the physical reality that surrounds us.

As our students at NYU also experience, when we meditate together, we are instantly confronted with the fact that the mind prefers to be in an adversarial position. Even to just focus simply our breath for a few moments at a time in a tremendous endeavor.

Arjuna, in the Gita, agrees when he says:

The mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate and very strong, O Krsna, and to subdue it, I think, is more difficult than controlling the wind.

Krishna, while trying to present the true reality of our bodily and mental nature as clearly as possible in the Gita, is also trying to show us that we can transcend this nature into the actuality of our being as spirit, so he responds to Arjuna's plea by saying:

O mighty-armed son of Kuntī, it is undoubtedly very difficult to curb the restless mind, but it is possible by suitable practice and by detachment.

The wisdom texts of the Bhakti tradition have a specific and compassionate design to help us access this suitable practice and detachment, in the form of a specific style of meditation using mantra.  Many of us are familiar with this word, but not as much as with its actual meaning.  Contemporary Bhakti scholar Stephen Knapp explains:

Man means the mind, tra means deliverance. Therefore, a spiritual mantra is the pure sound vibration for delivering the mind from material to spiritual consciousness. This is the goal of any spiritual path. 

The Bhakti tradition of the Gita recommends the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra (Hare Krishna/Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna/Hare Hare/Hare Rama/Hare Rama/Rama Rama/Hare Hare), which is known as the maha-mantra (“great chant for deliverance”).  This mantra consists of three names of the Divine: Hare (the feminine aspect of the Divine), Krishna (the all-attractive aspect of the Divine), and Rama (the pleasure reservoir of the Divine).

Just by resounding the vibrations of these names within one's body, mind, and heart, one comes into contact with the Divine, with God, who is not different from His/Her holy names. Chanting mantras engages so many of our faculties, from our hands delicately handling our prayer beads to our voices soaring in the musical chanting of these mantras, also known as kirtan

This is something I do every day (quite early in the day, befitting my monk lifestyle) in a consistent timeframe and manner, which gives me fuel to swim the upstream tide of spiritual life in the material world.  Paul McCartney said that meditation to him was akin to brushing one's teeth, in that he couldn't imagine going without it.  I certainly agree with that but I know as well the intention behind meditation must go deeper.

The chanting of mantras allows us, as we learn to focus, control, and harness the power of our mind for spiritual good, to gain access to these deeper benefits of meditation.  By chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, for example, we gain access to the heart of the reality of our being, as spirit soul seeking to return to our eternal loving relationship with God. 
Truly, meditation is meant to bring us to this reality, and while we can certainly enjoy and prosper from the stress relief and mental growth we get from our practice, we should always be striving for the divine love that is within us, which allows us to fully connect to God and to all life around us.

Chris Fici is a writer/teacher/monk in the bhakti-yoga tradition. He has been practicing at the Bhaktivedanta Ashram at the Bhakti Center in New York City since 2009.  After receiving a degree in film studies at the University of Michigan, Chris began his exploration and study of the bhakti tradition. He currently teaches classes on the culture and art of vegetarian cooking, as well as the living philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, at New York University and Columbia University. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Regulative Principles of Freedom

The Vedic spiritual tradition, as magnificently manifested in the Bhagavat Purana, the volume of stories, fables, and lessons from the life of Krishna, the Divine Personality of God, and His followers and friends, tells us of the exceptional position of human life.  In the apparatus of our human form, our body-mind-intelligence-soul framework, we have the opportunity to realize the deepest meaning and reality of our own individual self, and the meaning and reality of our relationship with God.

According to the Vedas, other life forms, the animals and plants we share this world with, do not have this same opportunity.  I have noticed that to exclude the birds and bees from a life of enlightenment is a matter of fierce debate, but the science of self-realization does not run merely on the engine of instinct. The eminent Vedic sage and scholar Swami Prabhupada writes in his translation of the Bhagavat Purana that:

Animals in bodies lower than that of the human being are conscious only as far as their bodily distress and happiness are concerned; they cannot think of more than their bodily necessities of life-eating, sleeping, mating and defending. But in the human form of life, by the grace of God, the consciousness is so developed that a man can evaluate his exceptional position and thus realize the self and the Supreme Lord.1

This is where we come to an even stickier point. To run beyond our feral instincts means to understand the power of our mind and senses, and to be able to actually harness the power of our mind and senses. It is a matter of control, of discipline.

Swami Prabhupada also writes in the Bhagavat Purana:

By controlling the senses, or by the process of yoga regulation, one can understand the position of his self, the Supersoul, the world and their interrelation; everything is possible by controlling the senses.2

Spiritual life becomes very meaningful when we understand the blessings that discipline can bring into our consciousness. In the Bhagavad-gītā, Krishna explains that the mind can be either our best friend, or our worst enemy. One doesn't have to be yearning for divinity to understand this in a very visceral and practical way. Krishna then goes on to describe certain “regulative principles of freedom”3 which allow us to be no longer held hostage by our uncontrolled minds and senses.

Followers of the bhakti tradition, from monks like myself to those who are married together, attempt to honor and hold four main regulative principles to enhance our spiritual experience. First, we are vegetarian (and vegan, if we so choose), avoiding all meat, eggs, and fish to uphold the sacred principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, which is essential to spiritual development. Second, we avoid intoxication, even caffeine and tobacco, in order to clarify and purify our vision and thought.

Third, we do not gamble or speculate, in order to avoid falling into the various illusory traps that greed may offer us. Lastly, we only practice sex in marriage, and mainly for the procreation of children, in order to defend the sacred nature of sexuality, and not allow it to be degraded into a matter of selfish lust, which can destroy any spiritual aspirations we may have.

All this talk of regulations and discipline can leave one a little hesitant, one foot in, one foot out. Discipline has fallen out of fashion in our post-post-modern world. Whereas in previous generations it was seen as a rite of passage, or even as a fashion and calling (look at the strictness and sacrifice of the American peoples supporting the war effort in World War II as an example), now it is seen as a perversion of our natural desires, of our very striving for freedom.

I hope you may be able to see from my explanation of the regulative principles that we follow in the bhakti tradition how the case is actually the opposite. Without some consideration of the power of our instincts, and a practice thereof to control and harness this power, what we may call “freedom” is actually a servitude to the negative forces of lust, envy, greed, and pride that are within us and all around us.

Discipline has to be understood beyond its surface impressions in order to see how it gives us spiritual freedom. It is a means to a tremendous end, allowing us and helping us to fully understand our loving relationship with the Divine, with God. As the father of monastic life in the West, St. Benedict describes in his Rule:

Therefore we must establish a school of the Lord's service; in founding which we hope to ordain nothing that is harsh and burdensome.

But if, for good reason, for the amendment of evil habit or the preservation of charity, there may be some strictness of discipline do not at once be dismayed and run away from the way of salvation, of which the entrance must needs be narrow.

But as we progress in our monastic life and in faith, our hearts shall be enlarged and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God's commandments.

A firm yet healthy discipline of our body and mind helps to a deeper discipline of will and intention. To discipline our intention means to remove our selfishness. This also is not as black-and-white as it may seem on the surface, for we must also consider what it means to be selfish.

In other parts of the bhakti scriptures, it is described that the key regulative principle, over and above all
others, is to always do what is favorable for the development of one's devotion to God, and conversely always avoid that which is unfavorable. Selfishness is that which focuses the power of our will and intention solely on the pleasure and well-being of our own self, as if we are the center of the universe, rather on the pleasure and well-being of God and all of our living brothers and sisters in this world.

There is a certain risk to be walked through here, in that if we are striving to stifle our negative selfish tendencies, we may actually go too far in the opposite direction, and lose touch with the actual needs of our self, with the ambitions we hold which can still carry us running towards God if we know how to utilize them properly.

Swami Prabhupada further explains:

Real self-realization by means of controlling the senses is explained herein. One should try to see the Supreme Personality of Godhead and one's own self also.4

Our relationship with God is a two-way street. We are interested to know God fully, and He is interested to know us fully, and to help us offer the very best that we can to Him. It is our sacred duty to participate in this relationship, and it is a very healthy and mature attitude to always be exploring how we can best offer our talents and aspirations the very best of ourselves, to God, insuring we find the deepest fulfillment we can find as seekers and students of the Divine.

As I look forward into my own life, throwing off a certain sense of naivete and inertia, looking towards academic, social, and Interfaith opportunities to imbibe and expand Prabhupada's mission in New York City in whatever humble way I see fit, I carry a determination to know who I am, for better and for worse. We can't avoid, as we develop our sincere spiritual ambitions, the weeds in the garden of our heart which blur and corrupt these ambitions.

Our spiritual journey is meant to guide us into and beyond our lower nature, but not through evasion and aversion, but through a courageous and honest engagement with the loving support of our fellow community of seekers.

To come out the other side, into the best of our self that we can offer to God, we must allow the discipline we voluntarily impose on our body and mind to help also discipline our intention. What is that discipline of intention? To keep everything do wrapped in the spirit of service. As we develop the unique facets of our personal offering to God, we must keep this foundation strong in order to prevent us from wandering back into the deserts of our selfishness.

Discipline is, at its essence, an art of focus, of revelation of the best that we carry, not merely the denial of the worst we hide from ourselves and others. The principles we follow, spiritually and otherwise, to regulate our consciousness and its intention, give us a freedom that is not temporary and not relative, that is not material. It gives us the enlightenment which is our most natural instinct, and also the opportunity to give a humble yet powerful example to help others rise above.





Saturday, February 25, 2012


A new essay, based on a lecture from Varsana Swami, published at Elephant Journal

In 1965, teacher and scholar A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami transplanted the culture of Bhakti, or the yoga of devotion, from its roots in the ancient culture of India to the Western world.

Bhaktivedanta Swami was “ahead of his time” in the realm of living ecology. A few years before the modern ecological movement found its ground, Bhaktivedanta Swami was teaching his young students the ideal of “simple living and high thinking.” He encouraged them to break out of their industrialized and technological conditioning of mass consumption to return to a less complicated way of being, in order to free the mind for spiritual enlightenment. His students imbibed his audacity, starting farm communities in the model of the Vedic village culture in numerous places across North America, Europe, Africa, South America, Australia, and back to India.

They understood that what they were trying to do was, in a sense, both revolutionary yet eternal. The spiritual ecology and culture of the Bhakti tradition and of the Vedas is nothing new, yet to understand its precepts could bring profound auspicious change to our human condition, and to our increasingly fragile relationship with our Mother Earth.
We stand on the cusp of an abyss. We can see, with the correct lens of vision, that our collective reliance on machine and industry, on hardware and software, on an exploitative relationship with Mother Earth, has created the prospect of a total collapse of the comforts and easy access to resources that we take for granted.

Over the last forty years — beginning from the crystallized aesthetic beauty of the famous “Blue Marble” picture of our Mother Earth taken by the astronauts of Apollo 17 — we have come to understand that we all share the same planet, the same air, the same soil. We carry within us the strong, yet mostly unconscious inkling, that the Earth is our collective mother and our collective psyche.

The degree of our forgetfulness of this is the degree of pain we now all share at the breaking of our symbiosis with the planet which shelters us, nurtures us, and gives us everything she has. What would we do if the fragile relationship we have left with Mother Earth shattered?

What would we do if the chain of easy flow and access to the consumer goods and resources we take for granted broke down?

In an article by Mike Adams at Natural News, (How Fragile We Are: Why The Complexity of Modern Civilization Threatens Us All) the author bluntly states:

“ There is almost no slack in the systems that deliver your food, fuel, electricity, water or consumer products. That means if something goes wrong, even for a little while, you’ll need to depend on yourself to provide these things. Yet how many people have the ability to provide all these essentials for themselves — disconnected from the grid — for even as little as one weekend?

 Few, it turns out.

They have unknowingly bet their lives on the reliability of just-in-time delivery systems and complex infrastructure interdependencies. When the water stops flowing, or the electricity goes off, or the gasoline runs out, they literally will have no idea what to do.”

We must also understand that this problem cannot be inherently solved by the same mechanisms that created it. Technology and science cannot be assumed to be the cure for the same problems they caused. Contemporary philosopher John Gray has written:

“Science is a tool for problem-solving…but it has this peculiarity, that when it is most successful it creates new problems, some of which are insoluble. This is an unpopular conclusion, and it is not only those who believe technology can overcome mortality that resist it. So do Greens who support renewable technologies and sustainable development. If humans have caused climate change, Greens insist, humans can also stop it.”

This is not to say that we should abandon the innovation and enthusiasm to create scientific and technical tools which can help to reverse the tide, but Gray suggests that we not exclusively worship at the same altar to the same gods who gave us what we asked for.

There is another ingredient to be added to the recipe for solution which we must consider, which is our inherent divinity.

We must go to the ground of our being, to the level of our consciousness, our thought patterns, our actions, our aspirations, our desires, to the engine of our inner psyche, towards our soul and towards God, to understand why we do what we do, and to understand why we have chosen exploitation instead of integration, dissonance instead of harmony, affluenza instead of illumination, in our sacred relationship with Mother Earth.

This platform of consciousness, where we can understand our relationship with the Divine, with God, is where we can properly begin to understand the reality of true eco-ethics. Eco-ethics is the proper protocol of thought, action, obligation, and responsibility between organisms and their collective shared environment or ecology.

Any purely materialistic angle of vision of approach to eco-ethics will reach its limitations unless we include the perspective of universal, divine wisdom. This wisdom, or dharma, is from the transcendent realm, well beyond even this material world, yet intrinsically pervading our individual and collective consciousness. Dharma is the codices and well-worn common-sense which allows us to understand our intrinsic spiritual nature, and our link to God through understanding our function and duty as beings in relation to universal law.

The key aspect of dharma in Vedic theology revolves around actualizing the full nature of our personality and our relationships. The core concept of dharma is known as sanatana-dharma, which describes the constitutional nature of our soul in the mood of loving service or devotion (Bhakti) to God, creating an all-inclusive matrix that takes in and fulfills the obligations of our relationship to family, society, humanity, and our ecology.

Those who understand the Earth as our Mother, and who really value that relationship in their heart and in their actions, approach our crisis and its potential solutions from the heart of this universal dharma, which extends across all spiritual cultures. This relationship is not to be understood in any kind of purely mythological or vapid manner. Instead, the theology of Vedic culture explains the link between our actions, and what the Earth is divinely inspired to give us.

This science of action  revolves around the culture of selfless action in the mood of sacrifice. Sacrifice, in its purest form, means to give up something in order to please someone else, which is the essence and heart of all real relationships, and the heart of the Bhakti tradition, in which one tries to offer all of the fruits of one’s efforts to please God.

 It is the great blessing of our Mother Earth in that she wants to give her gifts to us in order that we may offer them in return to God who has supplied her with her natural bounty.
Photo: Just Karen

When this cycle of receptivity, abundance, and sacrifice is fully adhered to, harmony in our ecology is fixed. The temple of our personal and collective mind, body, and soul stands strong. She is happy to provide for everyone, if everyone is utilizing her gifts properly. This traditional model of agriculture meant that, on the natural level, everything that came from the Earth went back into the Earth. This is the true synchronicity of God’s arrangement.

Any organic farmer can experience this, using manure as organic fertilizer for example. What is the contrast? What goes back into the Earth through factory farm agriculture? Blood meal, bone meal, and chemical fertilizers, all boons of the so-called “Green Revolution.” We also have synthetic nitrogen, which comes from petroleum, saturating much of our valuable soil, killing the needed microrganisms in the earth, which then creates the need for more and more chemicals to get more and more yield from the dying soil.

The classic Vedic text Mahabharata tells us that agriculture is the most noble of occupations. That we have lost sense of this, speaking from the perspective of my own experience and my own generation, is a painful knot in the heart.

I do not want to generalize here, but a personal anecdote may suffice. I spent the better part of two years at a Bhakti community in the hills of West Virginia, living as a monk, and one of my services was to assist with our organic gardening projects. I began with great enthusiasm, until the degree of effort and hard work required hit me like a ton of bricks. I relayed my difficulty to resident sage Varsana Swami, who had spent decades at this project creating the natural infrastructure, and he said that my experience was not uncommon.

He had seen many people come to work and serve there with a sense of romanticism towards the tilling of the land, and he came to see that this romanticism was not a sustainable fuel for the sacrifice that was really needed to gain access to the integrity and determination needed to give life to the land. I took this to heart in my own experience and it was a harsh lesson for me to learn, but it is one I strive to deeply imbibe and carry within me to purify my heart, so that I may be able to understand and participate in the true nobility of the community of real agriculture, on the material and spiritual level.

This sublime culture has two pillars at its core: the culture of brahminical knowledge and the protection of one of the most dynamic living beings we share this planet with, the cow.  At its core, brahminical culture means knowing the difference between matter and spirit, between our eternal nature as souls and our temporary situation in these material bodies, and living our lives in an according way to actualize that knowledge.

The cow, also one of our dear mothers, helps to give all the essential gifts of proper sacrifice and offering to the Divine. Ayurvedic science tells us that milk, particularly in its natural, raw, unpasteurized state, is a tremendous boon for physical health. It also helps to develop the finer tissues of the brain, which are conducive to the development of deeper spiritual understanding.[1] The cow’s masculine counterpart, the bull/ox, was primarily responsible for tilling the land in traditional Vedic culture.

It was this abandonment (and eventual exploitation) of the cow, bull, and ox, and the conversion to tractor power which played a large part in ruining traditional local farm economies in India, America, and across the globe.  Eventually from this, multinational corporations could co-opt the chain of command as to how we ate and what we grew.

Most of the foodstuffs we mainly have access to in our local shops come from California and other far-flung places.  Having the food supply in the hands of big agribusiness creates, by and large, a situation of exploitation. The sacred relationship and the nobility of agriculture becomes long lost.

Because the sacred art of agriculture always returns us to the essence of relationships, to the knowledge that we are inter-dependent on others, from our fellow earthlings, from the mercy of God, for our sustenance, we get a sense of its magnanimous heart. Agriculture encourages cooperation, whereas technology and industry tend to encourage competition. The nature of competition, and the envy it produces, is destructive to the relationship between the individual and the whole. It encourages the perversion of selfishness, that the whole should be serving the parts.

Real health is when the parts are serving the whole-serving the root of everything material and spiritual, giving one’s love to God and being imparted from Him the art and actions of love and compassion.

Understanding our predicament from a spiritual perspective begins at the level of desire.  We confuse our legitimate needs with our illegitimate desires. We are conditioned to believe that material prosperity is the only route to happiness in this world. Real prosperity, guided by the light of transcendent eco-ethics, means access to wisdom, health, and real progress towards the goal of life, the re-establishment of our loving relationship with God through self-realization.

God has created a perfect synergy for us to have access to. He is deeply pleased when we cooperate and sacrifice together. Our efforts combine to create a conduit for His mercy, to create an abundance that truly sustains us. We want to feel that we are part of something greater than ourselves. If we can develop our relationship to this Divine arrangement, to the Earth as our mother, goddess, and supreme teacher, through gratitude, humility, and prayer, she will help us to understand and open our heart to our relationship with the Divine, to become channels of real change in this world, unfolding the solution in every step we take.