Monthly Archives: March 2009

Superbird

In Sanskrit the word haṁsa is the name for both a bird and an advanced yogī. The bird has such estimable qualities that its very name became applied to the spiritual practitioner.

In English, Prabhupāda followed a well-established convention and rendered haṁsa as “swan.” The advanced yogī or devotee is accordingly “swan-like.”

For example, Prabhupāda once remarked, in reference to his disciples: “So Kṛṣṇa consciousness means swan-like, they should be like swans. Their behavior should be like swans. They should live in clean place, at refreshing place.”

In this second usage, haṁsa has probably become most generally encountered when prefixed by the superlative parama, meaning “highest,” best,” and so on.  Strictly speaking, paramahaṁsa denotes the highest of the four ranks of sannyāsa (see ŚBh 5.1.27, purport), but it is used in more general sense to describe the best of the sages or devotees.

We often see the word placed as a title before the names of a variety of spiritual teachers.

If dedicated transcendentalists are compared to swans, it should come as no surprise that committed materialists are likened to crows. The Bhāgavatam (1.5.10) describes worldly literature as vāyasaṁ tīrtham—a pilgrimage site for crows, that is to say, a garbage pile. In his commentary to this text, Prabhupāda elaborates on the bird metaphor:

Crows and swans are not birds of the same feather because of their different mental attitudes. The fruitive workers or passionate men are compared to the crows, whereas the all-perfect saintly persons are compared to the swans. The crows take pleasure in a place where garbage is thrown out, just as the passionate fruitive workers take pleasure in wine and woman and places for gross sense pleasure. The swans do not take pleasure in the places where crows are assembled for conferences and meetings. They are instead seen in the atmosphere of natural scenic beauty where there are transparent reservoirs of water nicely decorated with stems of lotus flowers in variegated colors of natural beauty. That is the difference between the two classes of birds.

A special talent traditionally attributed to the haṁsa is said to be the basis of the extension of the avian name to a spiritually advanced person. Prabhupāda explains (Kṛṣṇa chapter 85):

The word paramahaṁsa mentioned here means “the supreme swan.” It is said that the swan can draw milk from a mixture of milk and water; it can take only the milk portion and reject the watery portion. Similarly, a person who can draw out the spiritual portion from this material world and who can live alone, depending only on the Supreme Spirit, not on the material world, is called a paramahaṁsa.

Even one of the avatāras of the Lord bears the name “Haṁsa.”

Therefore, after all this, it may come as a shock to discover that the avian haṁsa is, in fact, a goose—in taxonomical nomenclature, the anser indicus, known otherwise as the “bar-headed goose.”

As we shall see, the haṁsa—the anser indicus—is an extraordinary,  amazing bird fully qualified to give its name to great devotees and even to the Lord himself. So why then the English “swan?”

The reason can only be that in English-speaking countries, the goose has long been the subject of very bad p.r.  So much so, that the very word “goose” has come to be synonymous with “fool” or “idiot.”

Even proverbially, the goose has suffered invidious comparison with the swan, as, for example, in this still remembered observation—made in 1786—by Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Oxford, concerning the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds : “All his own geese are swans, as the swans of others are geese.”

Two centuries later, the goose received the same unfavorable evaluation in popular lines by Charles Kingsley:

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen. . . .

It’s no wonder, then, that the only good translation, connotatively speaking, for haṁsa is “swan.” It’s a no-brainer, really: Consider the expressions “goose-like great sage,” or “top-most goose-like devotee.” They just don’t do the job.

Nevertheless, it is time we end this historic discrimination and rehabilitate the goose. Especially the haṁsa. Of course, this effort was pioneered in the celebrated 2001 documentary Winged Migration, in which the haṁsa itself takes a cameo star-turn (see the beginning of Chapter 7 in the DVD).

The actual haṁsaanser indicus or bar-headed goose—is in its own right the perfect emblem and symbol for the greatest of transcendentalists.

Like the swan (Cygnus), it is beautiful . . .

hamsa-on-shore

. . . and likewise graceful in water:

two-hamsas-on-water

In fact, you can see from this photograph why Europeans could take the haṁsa for a kind of swan.

In flight, the haṁsa is spectacular:

hamsa-in-flight

flying-barheads3

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article notes of the haṁsa: “It has sometimes been separated from Anser, which has no other member indigenous to the Indian region, nor any at all to the Ethiopian, Australian, or Neotropical regions, and placed in the monotypic genus Eulabeia.”

A “mon0typic genus” is a genus that contains only one species. In other words, the haṁsa is in a class by itself. And not a goose (Anser). I don’t know who came up with the name Eulabeia, but it is appropriate: According to a lexicon of New Testament Greek, eulabia means “reverence toward God.”

Haṁsas are “super birds,” in the judgment of S. Marsh Tenney, a professor of physiology who has studied them extensively. “They do everything even better than other birds.” He is quoted in an article in Audubon magazine by Lily Whiteman, who gives quite an account of the birds’ annual prodigious feat:

At 29,028 feet, Mount Everest is tall enough to poke into the jet stream, a high-altitude river of wind that blows at speeds of more than 200 miles an hour. Temperatures on the mountain can plummet low enough to freeze exposed flesh instantly. Its upper reaches offer only a third of the oxygen available at sea level—so little that if you could be transported instantly from sea level to Everest’s summit, without time to acclimatize, you would probably lose consciousness within minutes. Kerosene cannot burn here; helicopters cannot fly here. Yet every spring, flocks of bar-headed geese—the world’s highest-altitude migrants—fly from their winter feeding grounds in the lowlands of India through the Himalayan range, sometimes even directly above Everest, on their way to their nesting grounds in Tibet. Then every fall these birds retrace their route to India. With a little help from tailwinds, they may be able to cover the one-way trip—more than 1,000 miles—in a single day.

In other words, the haṁsa when migrating flies at about the normal cruising altitude for passenger jets.

Moreover, by using tailwinds, the geese capitalize on weather that could pulverize lesser creatures. “These birds are powerful flappers, not soarers that just glide with the wind,” says M.R. Fedde, an emeritus professor of anatomy and physiology at Kansas State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, who has conducted laboratory studies of the bar-headed goose’s respiratory system. Partly because their wings are huge, have a disproportionately large surface area for their weight, and are pointed to reduce wind resistance, “they can fly over 50 miles an hour on their own power,” Fedde says. “Add the thrust of tailwinds of perhaps 100 miles an hour if they are lucky, and these birds really move.” Able to gauge and correct for drift, bar-headed geese can even fly in crosswinds without being blown off course. The same powerful and unremitting flapping that helps propel them over the mountains also generates body heat, which is retained by their down feathers. This heat, in turn, helps keep ice from building up on their wings.

(Here is the complete article, with more wonders of the bird and some speculation so far-fetched it only deepens the mysteries of the haṁsa.)

We hear of great yogīs and sages in past ages retiring to the Himalayan mountain fastness to practice severe austerities as they sought the divine in profound and prolonged meditation. It is said that by power of yoga practice, these paramahaṁsas could greatly reduce their respiration, thereby slowing their metabolism; they could at will increase their bodily heat. Thus remaining in a remote place which provided them with neither air, nor food, nor heat, they pursued their spiritual goal with unwavering determination.

(By the way: Even though we can hardly imitate them today, we can apply their principles practically—at least according to the directions of Bhāgavad-gītā, which set forth what is, in effect,  a domestication of the path of transcendence. You don’t have to go to the Himalayas: you can do it right at home.)

Yet even for us, the prodigious, Himalayan-traversing haṁsa is a fitting emblem and symbol for the paramahaṁsa, the great, heroic athletes of the spirit in whose footsteps we should follow.  Let us therefore cherish the memory not only of the human paramahaṁsa but of the bird haṁsa as well.

And compared to the haṁsa, the swan is nothing but a goose.

three-hamsas-flying

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The Kṛṣṇa-Approaching Body

Here is an excerpt from a lecture by Śrīla Prabhupāda on Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 2.1.1. It was delivered in New York, on April 10, 1969. (Some comments follow the excerpt.)

As soon as I am desiring something, immediately my body is formed. Immediately a particular type of body begins to form, and as soon as I am mature to change, my next body I get according to my desire. Therefore we should always desire Kṛṣṇa. Then from this life, the Kṛṣṇa-approaching body or the spiritual body will be formed. The more you become sincere servant of Kṛṣṇa, the more your body becomes Kṛṣṇaized, electrified. Therefore advanced Kṛṣṇa conscious person is considered to have a spiritual body. The same example, as I have given several times: just like iron rod. You put into the fire, it becomes warmer, warmer. The more it is connected with fire, it becomes warm, warm, warm. And at last it becomes red hot, so that at that time, if that iron is touched to any other thing, it burns. It does not act as iron; it acts as fire. Similarly, by this Kṛṣṇa consciousness, continuous chanting, you will make your body spiritualized. At that time, wherever you go, wherever you touch, he’ll be spiritualized. Similarly, the iron: Without being spiritualized, without being red hot, if you touch, it will not act.

So every one of us, those who have come to this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement, expected to preach in the future and to become a spiritual master also in the future. But first of all you must spiritualize yourself; otherwise it is useless. So kṛṣṇa-śakti vinā nahe. Without— Just like without being red hot, you cannot burn any other thing. Similarly, without being fully spiritualized, you cannot make others spiritualized. Therefore we have to follow the paramparā system. The disciplic succession, as we get the knowledge, as we get the power, as we get the instruction, so we have to follow. That will help me to spiritualize myself. And when you are spiritualized. . . . You’ll have to wait for that time. Then, wherever you will preach, the result will be there.

pen-line-4

“As soon as I am desiring something, immediately my body is formed. Immediately a particular type of body begins to form, and as soon as I am mature to change, my next body I get according to my desire.”

Here Prabhupāda alludes to the normal workings of karma, according to which an embodied living being transmigrates from one life-form to another, then another. Prabhupāda bases his statement on Kṛṣṇa’s description in Bhagavad-gītā (15.8-10):

The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another. The living entity, thus taking another gross body, obtains a certain type of ear, eye, tongue, nose and sense of touch, which are grouped about the mind. He thus enjoys a particular set of sense objects. . . . One whose eyes are trained in knowledge can see all this.

“As soon as I desire something, immediately my body is formed,” Prabhupāda says, pointing out that the subtle laws of nature are at work every moment, unseen by us. When I develop some particular desire, simultaneously I am developing a future or potential material body to satisfy that desire. When the time is ripe—“mature to change”—I leave this body and assume the new body, already prepared and awaiting me in its potential form. It becomes actualized, endowing me with the particular set of instruments of knowledge and action to fulfill my desires.

Therefore we should always desire Kṛṣṇa. Then from this life, the Kṛṣṇa-approaching body or the spiritual body will be formed.

The process of karma in the material realm is one manifestation of a more general principle: Kṛṣṇa—the Supersoul, the overseer and the permitter—fulfills each soul’s desire. If we desire to enjoy independently of Kṛṣṇa, and we acquire through karma bodies with senses to facilitate the satisfaction of all kinds of desires. (That is the reason there are so many varieties of life-forms on this planet.)

If we “desire Kṛṣṇa” then during this very life our body will be transformed into a form that will enable us to draw near to and interact with Kṛṣṇa: a “Kṛṣṇa-approaching body” or “spiritual body.”

We may safely assume that we have acquired a material body for the purpose of separation from Kṛṣṇa. Yet because we have attained a human form, our bodies have the potential for transfiguration or transmutation:

The more you become sincere servant of Kṛṣṇa, the more your body becomes Kṛṣṇaized, electrified. Therefore advanced Kṛṣṇa conscious person is considered to have a spiritual body.

If I touch a live electrical wire, not only do I feel the shock, but my body itself becomes a conductor of electricity: it has become “electrified.” Similarly, when I contact Kṛṣṇa with my present material body, that body becomes “Kṛṣṇaized.”

Bhakti-yoga is the discipline of connecting the present body—yoga literally means “connection”—to Kṛṣṇa by means of devotional service (bhakti). Here is the classic definition from therada-pañcarātra: hṛṣīkeṇa hṛṣīkeśa– sevanaṁ bhaktir ucyate: “Bhakti means engaging all our senses in the service of the Lord, the masters of all the senses.”

How is it possible to bring our senses into contact with Kṛṣṇa? He makes himself accessible in this world even to our present materially afflicted senses through a variety of ways: first of all, his names, the nāma-avatāra:

Janmashtami

Then as His form for worship in the temple, the ārcā-avatāra:

radha-saradbihari

And in the form of books:

bhagavata-purana-set-7

And of food spiritualized by having first been enjoyed by the Lord:

festival-prasadam

When the senses become engaged and absorbed in various ways in the Lord, who has made himself so accessible, these senses become “Kṛṣṇaized.” As engagement becomes progressively more complete and uninterrupted, our material body becomes capable of directly apprehending Kṛṣṇa and interacting with Kṛṣṇa: a “spiritual body.”

In the kingdom of God, Kṛṣṇa and the liberated devotee—both present to each other in spiritual forms—engage in various transactions of love. In these forms there is no difference between the soul, the mind, and the body, and each sense or part can perform the function of every other sense or part. As a devotee practicing in this world—in his sādhaka-deha—becomes advanced, that human form becomes capable of full transcendent experience. At the same time, the devotee’s eternal spiritual identity—the siddha-deha—also becomes manifest; the devotee in that transcendent form will continue to serve Kṛṣṇa even after his dhaka-deha has ceased.

The advanced devotees in this world, no longer animated by their past karma, but solely by Kṛṣṇa’s desire, are present in a spiritualized material body. Prabhupāda elsewhere compares such a body to a gold-plated box. For all practical purposes, it is as good as the siddha-deha, the solid gold box. Although the dhaka-deha may seem to exhibit the afflictions common to material bodies, there is no impediment or inconvenience to the service of the devotee.

The same example, as I have given several times: just like iron rod. You put into the fire, it becomes warmer, warmer. The more it is connected with fire, it becomes warm, warm, warm. And at last it becomes red hot, so that at that time, if that iron is touched to any other thing, it burns. It does not act as iron; it acts as fire. Similarly, by this Kṛṣṇa consciousness, continuous chanting, you will make your body spiritualized.

Iron, made red hot in fire, acts just like fire. Although it is a form of earth, it is as good as fire.


At that time, wherever you go, wherever you touch, he’ll be spiritualized. Similarly, the iron: Without being spiritualized, without being red hot, if you touch, it will not act.

As red-hot iron has the power to make a fire, a devotee with spiritualized body can also spiritualize others.

So every one of us, those who have come to this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement, expected to preach in the future and to become a spiritual master also in the future. But first of all you must spiritualize yourself; otherwise it is useless. So kṛṣṇaśakti vinā nahe. Without— Just like without being red hot, you cannot burn any other thing. Similarly, without being fully spiritualized, you cannot make others spiritualized. Therefore we have to follow the paramparā system. The disciplic succession, as we get the knowledge, as we get the power, as we get the instruction, so we have to follow. That will help me to spiritualize myself.

Here is Prabhupāda’s desire for his disciples: by following his directions, they become spiritualized. Then those disciples will have the power to spiritualize others.

He quotes from Caitanya-caritamṛta (Anya-līla 7.11) Vallabha Bhaṭṭa’s statement to Lord Caitanya:

kali-kālera dharma—kṛṣṇa-nāma-saṅkīrtana
kṛṣṇa
akti vinā nahe tāra pravartana

“The spiritual practice established for this Kali-yuga is the chanting of the name of Kṛṣṇa. That practice cannot be propagated unless one is empowered by Kṛṣṇa’s spiritual potency.”

That potency is passed down from Lord Caitanya through the chain of disciplic succession:

Therefore we have to follow the paramparā system. The disciplic succession, as we get the knowledge, as we get the power, as we get the instruction, so we have to follow. That will help me to spiritualize myself. And when you are spiritualized. . . . You’ll have to wait for that time. Then, wherever you will preach, the result will be there.

Before I encountered the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement, I was engaged in graduate religious studies in a university. One day a professor remarked: “The issue is not whether or not God exists. The issue is whether or not God is available.”

After some thought, I agreed with him: If God is available, that settles the existence question. And if God exists but is not available, what difference does it make?

When a little later I came into contact with Kṛṣṇa’s devotees, the availability question became overwhelming settled.

Here Prabhupāda tells us how God becomes available to us, and—what is more—how we can also make God available to others.

That is the “Kṛṣṇa-approaching body.”


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Gaura Pūrṇimā 523

Five hundred and twenty three years ago, on this full moon night in the month of Govinda, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu appeared in the world, the avatāra descended to deliver Kṛṣṇa prema to the extremely fallen people of this Kali-yuga.

Caitanya is Kṛṣṇa himself. In order to most completely offer his divine mercy, he does not come as the Lord. Covering his Godhood, he appears in the form of his own devotee (bhakta-rupa). The mercy of the Lord has ever been most fully delivered through his devotees. Not to be outdone, the Lord himself takes on the emotions and actions of his own devotee. He is thus both the supreme master and the supreme servant.

When he descends as Caitanya, he brings with him his divine expansions and energies, the closest of whom also act with him as devotees. The Lord and his four immediate associates constitute a set called the Pañca-tattva.

A Painting of the Pañca-tattva

pancatattva-1

This is a photograph of the first Pañca-tattva painting made in the West. When Prabhupāda came from India in 1965, he brought with him one of those small, mass-produced, cheap devotional prints of Pañca-tattva. Keeping it on a low table, he offered ārati to it every day. Wanting a big Pañca-tattva image for the altar of the temple at 26 2nd Ave., in the fall of 1966 Prabhupāda directed Jadurāṇī dāsī, who was then just learning to be an artist, to execute a larger, oil-on-canvas, representation based on his Indian print.

(She copied too exactly. After she’d finished, she asked Prabhupāda what was the devanāgarīOṁ” sign, with Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa wrapped inside, that hung over Lord Caitanya’s head. “The artist’s imagination,” Prabhupāda replied.)

I first set eyes on this large Pañca-tattva in 1970, not in New York but in Philadelphia, when I paid my initial visit to a temple. ISKCON’s first center in my city humbly occupied, in a run-down University City neighborhood, a narrow row-house of blackend brick in a state of criminal disrepair—your standard student rental. There, the Pañca-tattva commanded the center of an altar set up in the bay of the front window.

Apparently by that time the devotees up in Manhattan had acquired a new, more skillfully executed painting of Pañca-tattva painting. The old one was passed down to Philadelphia.

This painting was my first deity. After I moved into the temple in 1971 (then relocated to the Germantown section), the Pañca-tattva became the recipient of my daily worship and meditation. The next year, when I was the temple president and large Jagannātha deities came to occupy the altar, the Pañca-tattva painting remained in the temple room.

It kept its place of honor, even as we twice changed locations. In 1978, I was no longer the temple president. I served with the Bhaktivedanta Institute and lived outside. One day, a bright, brand-new Pañca-tattva painting appeared on the temple room wall. Soon afterward, my wife Saudamani dāsī happened to come upon the old Pañca-tattva painting down in the basement, propped on its side against the wall, amid a miscellany of castaway items.

A pang pierced her heart. She asked around: it was going to be discarded. I called the president. He told me they had at last gotten a far better picture. They didn’t need the old, embarrassingly amateurish, painting with its stiff figures. They just weren’t sure of the right way to dispose of a sacred object.

“Can I have it?”

“Sure. Take it. We don’t know what to do with it.”

All these years we’ve kept the old painting. Gradually, its status, having sunk far down, has climbed way back up. People are amazed that I have it. “That’s the very first Pañca-tattva painting in ISKCON.”

So it is. Now freshly cleaned, restored, and neatly framed, Saudamani and I continue to care for it. The Pañca-tattva, those five entirely numinous figures, give me daily association, and I regret only that the degree of my gratitude falls so far short of their mercy. Looking up at them as I type, I am thankful for the opportunity they are giving me to express my appreciation in public on this auspicious evening.

Two more pictures on my wall:

navadvipa-gauranga

Navadvīpa Gaurāṅga
A print purchased from a Navadvīpa street stall.

pancatattva-2

Pañca-tattva
Photograph of a fresco in a temple somewhere in the Nadia district.
(The tulasī leaf, affixed to Lord Caitanya’s feet with sandalwood paste, gives an indication of its actual size.)

The happiness of the Pañca-tattva

Here is a description from Caitanya-caritāmṛta of the essential activity of the Pañca-tattva, who have now so kindly appeared all over the world:

The characteristics of Kṛṣṇa are understood to be a storehouse of transcendental love. Although that storehouse of love certainly came with Kṛṣṇa when He was present, it was sealed. But when Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu came with His associates of the Pañca-tattva, they broke the seal and plundered the storehouse to taste transcendental love of Kṛṣṇa. The more they tasted it, the more their thirst for it grew. Śrī Pañca-tattva themselves danced again and again and thus made it easier to drink nectarean love of Godhead. They danced, cried, laughed and chanted like madmen, and in this way they distributed love of Godhead. In distributing love of Godhead, Caitanya Mahāprabhu and His associates did not consider who was a fit candidate and who was not, nor where such distribution should or should not take place. They made no conditions. Wherever they got the opportunity, the members of the Pañca-tattva distributed love of Godhead. Although the members of the Pañca-tattva plundered the storehouse of love of Godhead and ate and distributed its contents, there was no scarcity, for this wonderful storehouse is so complete that as the love is distributed, the supply increases hundreds of times. The flood of love of Godhead swelled in all directions, and thus young men, old men, women and children were all immersed in that inundation. The Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement will inundate the entire world and drown everyone, whether one be a gentleman, a rogue or even lame, invalid or blind. When the five members of the Pañca-tattva saw the entire world drowned in love of Godhead and the seed of material enjoyment in the living entities completely destroyed, they all became exceedingly happy. When the five members of the Pañca-tattva saw the entire world drowned in love of Godhead and the seed of material enjoyment in the living entities completely destroyed, they all became exceedingly happy.

Śrī Caitanya-caritāmta, Ādī-līlā 7. 20-27

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