Monthly Archives: August 2008

Local News

It is Tuesday afternoon and a day of rest. Peace and quiet reign beneficently over the Philadelphia temple as we recover from the hubbub of the holiday weekend. In this case the original meaning of “holiday” actually applies: “holy day.” For us, the holiday is the day we work the hardest. Since our hard work is exclusively for the pleasure of the Lord, however, it produces no karma. (In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna defines karma as work that generates future material bodies.) In this case, then, our karma-less holiday is a foretaste of the permanent vacation from mrityu-samsara, the treadmill of birth and death in the world.

Even so, the body and mind need a little recovery time.

On Sunday we celebrated the birthday of Lord Krishna, a day known on the calendar as “janmashtami.” The word literally means “the birth on the eighth day [of the waning moon].” The standard calendar the world now uses, of course, is based on changes we see in sun’s position. In contrast, our Vaishnava calendar of spiritual observances—of holy days (and weeks and months)—is based on the changes in the moon.

Consequently, an event celebrated every year on the same day on the lunar calendar—like the eighth day of the waning moon in the lunar month of Hrishikesh—ends up being observed each year on a different day of the solar calendar.

This year, Janmashtami in Philadelphia was scheduled to fall on a Sunday. I say “in Philadelphia” because if you want to calculate holy days on a lunar calendar with exactitude, then you must take into account your own latitude and longitude. In ISKCON, devotees have produced a computer program for this purpose, so that you merely plug in your location to generate the resulting calendar for your locale. (This can be done on online—you can also learn about the details of the lunar calendar and its calculations, if you are inclined that way.)

While Janmashtami this year fell on Sunday in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago, it fell on Saturday in Los Angeles. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust calendar gives the date for Los Angeles, and you have to look at the fine print for the alternative date for the East coast.

Yet even with Philadelphia itself, a variant date for Janmashtami made its appearance. Although the various traditions within the Hindu family all use a lunar calendar, expert pandits have debated among themselves for centuries about proper standards and methods of calculation. (The Mahabharata notes, with timeless wisdom, nasav rishir yasya matam na bhinnam—meaning, roughly, you cannot be considered an expert unless you disagree with the other experts.) No reason to be surprised, then, if the Hindu temples in our region all said Janmashtami fell on Saturday.

I didn’t learn this momentous fact until the weekend before last, when a number of Indian members of our congregation urged me to change the festival to Saturday, so we wouldn’t be out of the running. They told me that even the ISKCON temples in New York City and New Jersey scheduled their festival on Saturday to conform to common expectation; so should we in Philadelphia.

I said that on principle I wasn’t into changing the day, and practically it was too late to switch even if we wanted to. It would have to stay Sunday.

Celebrating Janmashtami on Sunday does have one drawback. The festival climaxes with an arati ceremony at midnight, followed by a feast. The whole thing doesn’t wind down until 2 a.m.. That’s rough for those who have to show up at work on Monday morning. Even so, we kept it Sunday. We stuck to our principles.

Sometimes you get credit just for that.

Given the concern that most Hindus in the region will think Saturday to be Janmashtami, we made arrangement to receive additional guests on Saturday night, with extra chanting and prasada. In the event, only a few people showed up.

I was puzzled by this.

• • •

We always work hard to get ready for Janmashtami. There are new day and night outfits to prepare for the Deities, special garlands, decorations for the altar and temple room, much work on the grounds, and a marathon of cooking. The crowds that show up every year exceed our capacity, yet somehow we fit them all in.

Our temple occupies the former Cresheim Arms Hotel, located on a two-and-a-quarter acre corner lot in West Mt. Airy, a leafy district in the northwestern lobe of our city. We purchased this property in 1977 for $165,000, and it is worth a great deal more now. But the two main buildings are very old—one built in the 1870s and the other in 1905—and the connecting breezeway, constructed to join the newer to the older building and make them into a hotel, is not long for this world. We have been working on renovating and expanding our facility, and after a long legal travail we have at last the go-ahead from the city. Or almost. All we need now is money.

And parking. One of the most potent mantras in America is “Ample free parking.” (If you are an American, close your eyes and say those words. Feel the power!)

Although we’ve increased the parking on our property, and there’s parking on the front and side streets, Janmashtami still presents a formidable challenge. We need volunteer parking attendants—ready to embrace immense austerity—to guide the cars onto the lot, fit them close together, direct them to form rows on the grass, and, most of all, to keep them from blocking others in. When there is no more room, the attendants must stop the cars at the entrance and direct them to the Valley Green Bank parking lot only a few hundred feet away. And then that fills up.

Cars come and go continuously, easing through narrow straits, from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m. May Krishna bestow his special blessings upon the attendants! They show that you can transcend this abject world of birth and death simply by parking cars.

And what about the cooks? And the pujaris! And the garland makers and decorators! And the cleaners! And the lawn mowers and hedge trimmers! As Sunday afternoon approached, I grew amazed at how much is getting done, and yet how much there always remains to do! Was there any end?

Then early on Sunday afternoon I became surprised by the numbers of visitors that began to arrive, and then simply kept on coming. The shoe racks flowed over, guests streamed steadily into the breezeway, and very soon the temple room was packed—yet more people always managed to get inside.

A little before seven o’clock I went into the backyard, dressed in shiny silk, to perform a fire sacrifice on the stage erected before the rear fence. The large yard looked like Philly’s 30th Street Station at rush hour. The chairs were all occupied, and a huge crowd milled behind them. After the sacrifice, long lines snaked through the yard as the first of the feast serve-outs began. The people in the lines moved steadily forward while the lines themselves kept on getting longer.

Our normal Sunday attendance of around two-hundred looked to be increase by a factor of ten.

It was becoming clear that this was the largest Janmashtami attendance we’d ever had. Finally, I had to stop worrying about parking, about bathrooms, about plates and cups, about shoe space and places to sit. Somehow Krishna was fitting everyone in, taking care of all of them. And so it is written in the Upanishads: The Lord is so complete, that even when he is utterly full, he can keep adding more and more . . . . On Janmashtami I saw it happening.

Afterwards, I had these reflections: It had surprised me when hardly anyone came to the temple on Saturday. Now I concluded that somehow or another, everyone got the word that the Philadelphia Hare Krishna temple was celebrating Janmashtami on Sunday.

On Janmashtami many Hindus—in India and now in America as well—are accustomed to pay their visit to several temples. That’s what must have happened in the Philadelphia area on Saturday. Had we observed our festival on that same day, we would have been one among many possible places to go. On Sunday, we were the only show in town.

That’s my theory.

• • •

On Monday morning we celebrated Vyasa Puja, observing the birthday of Srila Prabhupada. This is a sweet and intimate party, ending with Guru Puja and yet another feast. By noon a good crowd had gathered, maybe a hundred devotees—not bad at all for a Monday workday after a very late night blow-out. The real connoisseurs of devotion are sure to come for this celebration, because they know that Krishna enjoys the worship of his devotee even more than the worship of himself, and because for some time the word has been out that Prabhupada’s feast on Vyasa Puja is the very best of the year. And so it was.

I am resting today by writing these notes. They should have been posted by now. I had to interrupt my work this afternoon when fifty incoming divinity students from the Lutheran Theological Seminary, a little ways down the street, walked over to visit the temple. I welcomed them to “Colorful Mt. Airy,” the slogan of the area boosters. I said that we are a part of the local color. The students heard an introduction to bhakti-yoga, watched arati while we performed a little sankirtana, and then asked questions as they snacked on some burfi and sandesh.

During our first years in Mt. Airy, I frequented the library of the Lutheran Theological Seminary for research on my doctoral dissertation in religious studies. At that time, my head was unshaven and I dressed in mufti, yet the Lutherans discovered I was a devotee, and I learned that my presence was causing some consternation. Then one day I noticed by the circulation desk a long shelf of books on various sinister brainwashing cults—ISKCON prominent among them. The books were held on reserve for a course in pastoral care.

That was thirty years ago, and things have changed. Now every year the entering class of students is taken down the street to our temple for an introduction to Vaishnavism. We keep regular interactions. One professor from the seminary has joined our ten-year-long Vaishnava-Christian dialog held annually in Potomac, Maryland.

Gradually, we seem to be coming closer together. I recollected this history when, as the students were leaving the temple room this afternoon, one of the professors came up to talk with me some more. She was wearing an attractive silver and black sari.

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The Nature of the Self: A Gaudiya Vaisnava Understanding

Presented at the Vaisnava-Christian Conference on January 20-21, 1996 at Buckland Hall, Powys, Wales.

The Sparks of God

The soul, or self (atma), is described as a separated, minute fragment of God, the Supersoul (paramatma). God is like a fire; the individual souls, sparks of the fire. As the analogy suggests, the self and the Superself are simultaneously one with and different from each other. They are the same in quality, for both the soul and the Supersoul are brahman, spirit. Yet they differ in quantity, since the Superself (param brahman—“supreme brahman”—in Bhagavad-gita 10.12) is infinitely great while the individual selves are infinitesimally small.

In the Upanisads some texts assert the identity between the individual soul and the Supreme Soul, while others speak of the difference between them. The way the Vaisnava Vedanta resolves this apparent contradiction recognises identity and difference as equally real.

Such a reconciliation is conveyed in the Katha Upanisad (2.2.13) in the words nityo nityanam cetannas cetananam eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman. (“There is one eternal being out of many eternals, one conscious being out of many conscious beings. It is the one who provides for the needs of the many.”) This text states, in effect, that there is a class division in transcendence. It says that there are two categorically different types of eternal, conscious—hence, spiritual—beings. One category is singular in number (nityo), a set with only one member. This, then, is the category of God, who is one without a second. The other class is plural (nityanam), containing innumerable members. This is the category of the souls. The members of both classes are brahman, spirit. Yet one of them is unique, peerless, in a class by Himself, for He is the singular, independent self-sustaining sustainer of all others. Each of the others possesses a multitude of peers, and all of them alike are intrinsically dependent upon the one. The one is the absolute, the many are relative.

The Energies of the Absolute

Fundamental to the Vaisnava Vedanta is the doctrine that the Absolute Truth possesses energies. (The impersonalistic Advaita Vedanta, in contrast, denies the reality of the energies.) The energies are divided into different categories; one of them is comprised of the innumerable individual souls.

The “Absolute Truth” denotes that from which everything emanates, by which it is sustained, and to which it finally returns. The products of the Absolute are thought of as its sakti, its energy or potency. Heat and light, for example, are considered the “energies” of fire. Just as the sun projects itself everywhere by its radiation yet remains apart, so the Absolute expands its own energies to produce (and, in a fashion, to become) the world while remaining separate from it. Unlike the sun, the Absolute can emanate unlimited energy and remain undiminished. (The arithmetic of the Absolute: One minus one equals one.) In short, while nothing is different from God, God is different from everything.

The host of souls makes up the category of divine energy called the tatastha-sakti. Tata means “bank,” as of a river or lake. Tatastha means “situated on the bank.” The souls are characterised as marginal or borderline energy because they are, as it were, between two worlds. They can dwell within either of the other two major energies, the internal (antaranga-sakti) and the external (bahiranga-sakti). The internal potency is also known as the spiritual energy (cit-sakti), and the external potency is also called the material energy (maya-sakti). The internal potency expands as the transcendental realm, the eternal Kingdom of God. The external potency expands as the material world, which is sometimes manifest and sometimes unmanifest.

Because souls are spiritual, their original home is the spiritual kingdom. Almost all souls dwell there. These are called eternally liberated souls. Only a tiny minority of souls inhabit this material world. These are called fallen, or conditioned, souls.

Souls are small samples of God. Hence they possess a minute quantity of that freedom which God possesses in full. Although they are eternal, full of knowledge and bliss, and although their dharma, or essential nature, is to serve God, they may still, in the exercise of that freedom, wilfully turn away from divine service. Thereupon these souls fall into the inhospitable realm of the external, material energy.

Because souls are constitutionally servants, even the rebellious souls remain under God’s control, but that control is now exercised indirectly and unfavourably through the agency of material nature. Souls do not have the freedom not to be controlled by God, but they do choose freely how they wish to be controlled. Those who will not voluntarily be controlled by the Lord are controlled involuntarily by material nature. For this reason, spiritual souls become incarcerated within matter. Under the superintendence of the Lord, there is a confluence of the marginal and the external energies, and the creation arises.

Spirits in the Material World

The presence of spirit within the material world is disclosed immediately to us by consciousness. Consciousness is the symptom of the soul. It is the current or the energy of the soul. Consciousness does not arise as a by-product of the material energy. A material object like a table or chair is entirely an object and in no way a subject. It does not undergo experiences. It has no significance for itself. An embodied soul, a living being, on the other hand, is a subject; it has significance for itself as well as for others; it undergoes experiences. The claim that the soul is a “metaphysical entity” beyond all possible experience is simply false. Not only do we experience the soul; the soul is the very condition for our having any experiences at all.

Thus, souls are fundamental, irreducible entities in the world. Each living, conscious being is of a different category from the material energy which embodies and surrounds it. The Upanisads declare: aham brahmasmi, I am brahman, I am spirit. The corollary is: I am not matter. And further: I am not this body. Human beings achieve their full potential when they realise this.

The material elements, of which living bodies are made, are traditionally given as eight: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false ego. They are arranged in sequence from the grossest to the subtlest, that is, from the most apparent to our senses to the least. The first five are the gross elements (maha-bhuta-s); the last three, the subtle elements (suksma-bhuta-s). The gross elements become more intelligible to us when translated as: solids, liquids, gases, radiant energy, and space. The subtle elements, taken together, make up what we in the West generally call the “mind.” The subtle element manas, or mind, is the locus of habit, of normal thinking, feeling, and willing according to one’s established mind-set. Buddhi, or intelligence, is the higher faculty of discrimination and judgement; it determines mind-sets and comes to the fore when we undergo conversions or paradigm shifts. Ahamkara, or the sense of self, is the faculty by which the embodied soul assumes a false or illusory identity in the material world.

Conditioned souls attain human form after transmigrating upward through the scale of beings; thereupon they become capable of self-realisation and liberation. Liberation means giving up the false identification of the self with the gross and subtle material coils and regaining one’s original spiritual form as a servant of God.

Even in the conditioned state, the soul always remains a spiritual being. Like a dreamer who projects his identity onto an illusory, dream-self, the conditioned soul acquires a false self of matter. Although the self is by nature eternal, full of knowledge and full of bliss, this nature becomes covered by illusion. Identifying with the material body, the soul is plunged into the nightmare of history, trapped in the revolutions of repeated birth and death (mrtyu-samsara). This false identification by the embodied souls with their psychophysical coverings is the cause of all their suffering.

The quest by conditioned souls for happiness in this world inevitably fails. The eternal souls naturally seek eternal happiness, yet they seek it where all happiness is temporary. The fulfillment of the most common and basic desire, that of self-preservation, has not once met with success. Indeed, the deluded souls do not know that matters are just the opposite of the way they seem. Gratification of the senses is in fact the generator of suffering, not happiness. This is because each act of sense gratification intensifies the soul’s false identification with the body. Consequently, when the body undergoes disease, senescence, and death, the materially absorbed living beings experience all these as happening to themselves. Death is an illusion they have imposed upon themselves owing to their desire to enjoy in this world. So enjoying, their agony continues unabated. A mind brimming with unfulfilled yearnings propels them, at the time of death, into new material bodies, to begin yet another round.

Recovering the Authentic Self

Fallen souls have been granted a false material identity because they reject their authentic spiritual identity. The traces of that rejection are found everywhere. We see that all organisms, from microbes on up, are driven by the mechanism of desire and hate, by “approach” and “avoidance.” This duality is the reverberation of the original sinful will that propelled them into this world. The original sinful desire is: “Why can’t I be God?” And the original sinful hate, “Why should Krishna be God?”

When souls evince the desire to become the Lord, the Lord responds by granting them the illusion of independent lordship. They enter the material kingdom, to be provided with a sequence of false identities—costumes fabricated out of material energy—along with an inventory of objects which they think they can dominate and enjoy. Even so, the Lord accompanies them in their wanderings, dwelling in their hearts as He works to bring about their eventual rectification and return from exile. When the soul in the depth of his being again turns to God, the Lord makes all arrangements for his inauthentic, illusory life to end.

The renovation of real life is called bhakti-yoga—reconnecting the soul with the Supersoul (yoga) by loving devotional service (bhakti). Bhakti rests upon the principle that desire and activity are not in themselves bad. The soul itself is the source of desire and activity. The original, pure desire of the soul is to satisfy the senses of the Lord. This is called prema, or love. When souls contact matter, their love becomes transformed into lust (kama), which is the desire to satisfy one’s own senses. The practice of bhakti-yoga reconverts lust into love. Desire is not suppressed or repressed; it is purified. One may call this “sublimation,” but it should be understood that when desire is thus sublimated it returns to its own natural and aboriginal state.

The world, the body with its senses, the sense objects are not to be enjoyed, but neither are they to be renounced. The world is God’s energy, and it should not be decried as false or evil. Rather, the elements of this world are to be engaged in divine service. When that is done, the veil of illusion is lifted, and everything and everyone are seen in their true identity: in relationship to God. The way to see divinity everywhere and in everything is to utilise everything in the Lord’s service. God is the first of fact, but our materially contaminated senses cannot perceive Him. When, however, the senses become purified by being engaged in the Lord’s service, they regain their capacity to perceive God directly.

Such purified souls are fully joyful. They neither hanker nor lament. Their happiness does not depend upon the course of circumstance. They see all living beings as the same. They see that all the agony and hopelessness of the world is exorcised when the illusion that has rendered us oblivious to our own identity is dispelled, and they engage themselves in the highest welfare work of rousing sleeping souls from their nightmare. For themselves, they take no mind of what becomes of the future of their lives.

Because they have no material desires, there is no further birth for them in this world. Instead, they attain their original spiritual forms in the kingdom of God, spiritual bodies suitable for pastimes of love with the Lord.

Spirits in the Spiritual World

The Absolute Truth has both an impersonal and a personal feature, but the personal feature is the last word in Godhead. To say the Absolute is a person is to say that it has senses (indriya-s). Traditionally, the senses are ten: those through which the world acts upon us (instruments of hearing, touching, seeing, tasting, and smelling), and those through which we act upon the world (instruments of manipulation, locomotion, sound production, reproduction, and evacuation). The mind is often considered the eleventh sense. A body, accordingly, may be thought of as an array of senses organised around a centre of consciousness. Thus, to say that the Absolute is a person is to say that the Absolute has body or form.

The body of God is not material. It is a spiritual or transcendental form—sad-cit-ananda-vigraha, an eternal form of bliss and knowledge. Though differentiated by limbs or parts, a spiritual body is nevertheless completely unified and identical with its own possessor. Therefore, in God, there is no difference between body and soul, mind and body, soul and mind. Every limb or part of that body can perform all functions of every other limb.

Because the Absolute is a person, the souls, the offspring of God, are also persons, and they fully manifest their authentic identity only in relationship with the Supreme Person. When conditioned souls act under the impetus of sense gratification, their bodies evolve materially. But when the souls act in their constitutional position, their love toward God displays itself as the soul’s proper spiritual bodies. Thus, the selves achieve their full personal identity and self-expression as lovers of God.

All relationships in this world are dim and perverted reflections of their real prototypes in the kingdom of God. The taste or flavour of a relationship is called rasa (literally, “juice”). It is said that there are five primary rasa-s a soul can have toward the Lord. In order of increasing intimacy, they are passive adoration, servitorship, fraternal, parental, and conjugal.

God and His devotees engage in eternal pastimes of loving exchanges in spiritual forms that are sheer embodiments of rasa. Such bodies are the unmediated concrete expressions of spiritual ecstasies. These unceasing, uninterrupted, ever-increasing variegated ecstasies are nondifferent from the souls and from the spiritual bodies that bear them. The forms and activities of the Lord and His devotees all possess transcendental specificity and variegatedness. The forms of love are not abstractions and their relations are not allegories. In the kingdom of God life is infinitely more full, vivid, and real than anything of the thin shadows that flicker here, on and off. Here, we are not what we are. There, we are truly ourselves again because we are truly God’s.

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Invocation: “Entering the Inner Kirtana”

The following is an invocation recently given by Ravindra Svarupa dasa to ISKCON youth participating in a japa retreat in Saranagati Village as part of the Krishna Culture Festival Tour.

First, let me tell you how happy I became when Purusa-sukta Prabhu informed me that you all have made this retreat a part of your bus tour.

You have all agreed to set aside part of your trip for the joint undertaking of “entering the inner kirtana.” I thank you very much for this.

We devotees have a good time in kirtana, and people are attracted to our good time. When the divine names sail out on the stream of a sweet melody, propelled by the driving beat of the drums and kartalas, when the exuberant devotees dance and jump in joy—well, I have seen the crowds in New York and Stockholm, Cape Town and Berlin draw near and wish that they could be so happy!

We call this joining together in joyful chanting not just “kirtana” but “sankirtana.” “Kirtana” means to praise or glorify Krishna, but this kirtana has something special added when it is prefixed with “san.”

You know what that prefix means: “san” expresses conjunction or union—so “sankirtana” means that the kirtana is conducted together, in union with others. We join together to glorify Krishna—and at the same time we also try to attract more people to join in with us.

This is the sankirtana movement as taught by Lord Caitanya. When Caitanya and his associates chanted and danced, it is said, they broke the locks on the storehouse of Krishna prema, looted the contents, and passed it out freely to everyone. They did not consider who was fit or unfit.

However, Mahaprabhu’s sankirtana movement has two sides: the outer is spreading of the chanting to everyone, everywhere. There is an inner side also, an esoteric side.

In their inner practice, Mahaprabhu and his associates entered into the Vrindavana pastimes of Krishna. They taught how, by the cultivation of the Holy Names, a devotee is lead gradually to follow in the footsteps of the eternal residents of Vraja and, by their mercy, come to know and appreciate Krishna through the same ecstatic emotions as the Vrajavasis themselves.

This inner cultivation of the Holy Name is also denoted by the word “sankirtana.” In addition to conjunction and union, the prefix “san” expresses thoroughness, intensity and completeness. As, for example, in the word “sanskrit.” So sankirtana means that the Holy Name is chanted in a way that is thorough, completed, full and perfect.

In the first verse of his instructions on sankirtana, Mahaprabhu tells us the benedictions that are bestowed on us when our sankirtana—our completed chanting—becomes victorious: our consciousness is cleansed of all dirt, the suffering of material life ends, our greatest, highest good fortune opens like the petals of a night-blooming lily under the rays of the moon, our consummate knowledge of Krishna is enlivened like a bride on her wedding night by her beloved bridegroom. Thus we become part of the ever-increasing ocean of the joy of the divine life and with each step we can taste the fullness of bliss, which bathes our entire being.

This is what Caitanya himself promises us. We can be confident in the truth of what he says.

Of course, we do not experience all these things at once. The divine names are all endowed with Krishna’s personal spiritual energies, but we have also to make ourselves receptive to those energies. Therefore, Mahaprabhu and his associates have given us a process for cultivating the Holy Name. By that process our sankirtana becomes victorious.

Entering into that process is the best thing we can do for ourselves and for all humanity, for the entire planet.

Therefore I am overjoyed that you are taking the time on this trip to take the inner journey into the Holy Name. I have found this journey to be a wonderful and amazing adventure, a miraculous adventure.

Everything is there is sixteen words, thirty-two syllables. As we cultivate those words and syllables, they will disclose all their secrets to us.

I wish you all the best in your great adventure.

Hare Krishna!

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