Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Secret of Rāma

Earlier this month we celebrated Rāma-navamī, the appearance of Rāmacandra. That occasion offered me the opportunity to provide our congregation with the real import of Rāma-līlā, explaining what the activities of Rāmacandra reveal to us about our own lives in this world.

The story of Rāma is widely known. The original Rāmāyaṇa, Vālmīlki’s epic Sanskrit verse narration, remains revered, much read and recited. The work has spawned myriads of retellings in vernacular languages on the Indian subcontinent and across Southeast Asia as well. Many of these have become famous in their own right. More recently, narrative has been taken up by other media: a multitude of popular films, feature-length animations, television series, and, last but not least, comic books or “graphic novels,” all these broadcast the story of Rāma.

For all that, the meaning of Rāmāyaṇa—as I discovered to my surprise—remains almost completely unknown, even to its ardent fans. Famous though it is, the knowledge it conveys remains hidden. Secret, in other words. Esoteric.

I am privileged to know that secret only because Prabhupāda disclosed it. And I have disclosed it in turn. So it is, and has always been, an open secret. It is hiding in plain sight: present for all to see, yet none of us can apprehend it until we’re prepared to recognize it. Until we are no longer—as the psychologists say—“in denial.”

Rāmacandra is an avatāra, a descent of God, come to reveal himself to us here below. Rāmacandra descended together with his consort Sītā-devī. In his earthly pastime, Rāma, prince of Ayodhyā, won Sītā, the dark-eyed daughter of Janaka, king of Mithilā, as his bride. Thus a disclosure, and central plot-point, of Rāmāyaṇa is that God is not a bachelor.

As the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Rāmacandra is not only a person but the embodiment of ultimate metaphysical principles as well. The Personality of Godhead is, as the Bhagavad-gītā says, paraṁ brahman” the “supreme Brahman.” Brahman is defined in the Vedānta-sutra 1.1.1. as janmādy-asya yataḥ “that from which everything emanates,” or the ultimate source of all energies. The entire creation, material and spiritual, is the energy of God. As Rāmacandra is the embodiment of Brahman, Sītā is the embodiment of the energy of Brahman, technically the svarūpa-śakti.

In the transcendent kingdom of God, Vaikuṇṭha, the Lord reigns in all opulence and greatness as Nārāyaṇa, “the abode of all beings;” his eternal consort is Mahā Lakṣmī, the “supreme Goddess of Fortune.” All the opulence and auspiciousness of the Lord’s kingdom abide in her. And she, in turn, belongs exclusively to him.

This divine pair descends into the material world as Sītā and Rāmacandra. The material world is part of the kingdom of God, but it is a sequestered region where fallen souls can deny or forget God. All are here because of envy of the Lord; the illusory energy, , enables the denial of reality by them and facilitates their endless, vain projects to dominate and enjoy all the recourse of nature.

Sītā and Rāmacandra descend to attract and enlighten the fallen souls.

In the drama that Sītā and Rāma enact for us, a palace intrigue is instigated that forces Rāma to go into exile on the very eve of his coronation. For fourteen years he must live in the wilderness. His brother Lakṣmaṇa and his wife Sītā elect to accompany him and share his hardship.

In their jungle camp, Sītā becomes abducted by Rāvaṇa, the wealthy, powerful, and breathtakingly ambitious tyrant of the island kingdom of Laṇkā.

ravana_carries_off_sita_dh97

The powerful and crafty Rāvaṇa, with ten heads and twenty arms, carries away Sītā.

Aggrieved and enraged, Rāma vows to recover Sītā, and eventually he is aided in this by a tribe of Vānaras, a monkey-like race; they are led by the powerful son of Vāyu, god of the wind. This is Hanumān, the proto-superhero who reveals himself as fully devoted servant of Rāma.

Sītā-Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa, and Hanumān are worshiped together in temples. Here they are as they appear in ISKCON’s popular Juhu, Mumbai temple:

srlh-juhu-2

Rāmacandra, in the center, is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Sītā, standing on his left, is his internal spiritual potency, svarūpa-śakti. On Rāma’s right is his brother Lakṣmaṇa, who is the Lord’s plenary expansion. And Hanumān, offering obeisance at their feet, is the Lord’s pure devotee. Belonging to the category of the innumerable eternal spirit souls (vas) who comprise the Lord’s marginal potency, Hanumān exemplifies the fully liberated or enlightened va.

Sītā belongs by the side of Rāma, just as Lakṣmī is always with Nārāyaṇa. Yet Lakṣmī has long been worshiped and prayed to separately from Nārāyaṇa, invoked as the goddess of fortune to bless the petitioner with wealth and good luck. Here is Lakṣmī in that aspect:

lakshmi-devi

It is not too difficult to see a path from this to the more secular icon of American gamblers, a much-venerated personage typically decorated with standard symbols:

lady-luck-with-symbols

In a similar fashion, Hanumān has been popularly worshiped independently of Rāma for a long time. Typically he is propitiated in order to gain physical strength. Once, while exploring the spacious Jagannātha Vallabha gardens in Purī, I came upon a small temple to Hanumānji. His image on the altar seemed to be well cared for by a team of jārīs, all young men wearing brahmacarī saffron over their bulked up bodies. When not engaged in jā, they spent their time diligently exercising, lifting weights, and practicing martial arts.

Next to our temple in Juhu there is a municipal vest-pocket park maintained by ISKCON. It has an attractive oval walking path, paved in ocher tile, used by many locals for daily constitutionals. In the evenings, devotees chanting japa join them. On one side, a playground with good equipment attracts an animated crowd of yelling children. Next to the playground, a long shed-like building fills up with young men and boys strenuously working out with weights. They don’t neglect to pay their respects to Hanumān, who occupies an altar in a small room set aside for him.

Hanumān’s growing world-wide popularity recently elicited a long article in the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways, which I read with interest while flying from Kolkata to Mumbai.

In Trinidad, members of the Indian community have constructed an eighty-five-foot high outdoor statue of Hanumān. The abhiśeka, or ritual bathing, necessitates a unique innovation:

85-hanuman-in-trinadad-bathed-by-helicopter

Hanumān is the hero of “Hanumān Returns,” a 2007 full-length Hindi animated film:

cartoon-hanuman-2

And there is—how could there not be?—a Hanumān action figure:

hanuman-action-figure

And so the world, in various ways, implicitly or explicitly disassociate Lakṣmī and Hanumān from Rāma, and by so doing lose access to the meaning of Rāmāyaṇa.

Hanumān is indeed our hero, our exemplar, our role model. And Sītā or Lakṣmī-devī requires our deepest veneration. Here, commenting on Śrīmad Bhāgavatam (2.7.23) Prabhupāda reveals the secret:

Sītā is Lakṣmīji, or the goddess of fortune, but she is never to be enjoyed by any living being. She is meant for being worshiped by the living being along with her husband, Śrī Rāmacandra. A materialistic man like Rāvaṇa does not understand this great truth, but on the contrary he wants to snatch Sītādevī from the custody of Rāma and thus incurs great miseries. The materialists, who are after opulence and material prosperity, may take lessons from the Rāmāyaṇa that the policy of exploiting the nature of the Lord without acknowledging the supremacy of the Supreme Lord is the policy of Rāvaṇa. Rāvaṇa was very advanced materially, so much so that he turned his kingdom, Laṅkā, into pure gold or full material wealth. But because he did not recognize the supremacy of Lord Rāmacandra and defied Him by stealing His wife, Sītā, Rāvaṇa was killed, and all his opulence and power were destroyed.

In a lecture on Bhagavad-gītā 2.6 (London, August 6, 1973), Prabhupāda expounds on the role of Hanumān:

So Hanumān, a great fighter, fought with Rāvaṇa, but not for his personal interest. The interest was how to get out Sītāji from the hands of Rāvaṇa, kill the whole family and get out, and let her sit down on the side of Rāmacandra. This is the policy of Hanumān, of devotees. And the Rāvaṇa policy is “Take away Sītā from the clutches of Rāma and enjoy her.” This is Rāvaṇa policy. And the Hanumān policy is: “Take out Sītā from the hands of Rāvaṇa and get her seated by the side of Rāma.” The same Sītā. Sītā means Lakṣmī, wealth. So Lakṣmī means Nārāyaṇa’s property, God’s property.

In other words: All natural resources, all the bounty of nature, does not belong to us but to God, just as Sītā belongs Rāma. Any who attempt to exploit those resources for their own gain and aggrandizement, are like Rāvaṇa, advancing their own project to compete with God. They will invariably lose; their wealth and opulence will prove illusory. The sacred and heroic task appointed to the godly, then, is to see that all the world’s wealth and resources are restored to the their rightful owner, as Hanumān restored Sītā to the side of Rāmacandra. Note that in battling Rāvaṇa for Sītā, Hanumān was innocent of any desire of her for himself. This is what is meant by saying he is Rāma’s pure servant.

In its avarice for global economic development, the world has increasingly taken to the policy of Rāvaṇa; it will not be able to understand the secret of Rāmāyaṇa. Yet we have also recently seen wealth counted in billions and billions of dollars suddenly vanish into thin air. Prabhupāda gives the reason:

Riches come from Lakṣmī, the goddess of fortune, and the goddess of fortune is the property of Nārāyaṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The goddess of fortune cannot stay anywhere but by the side of Nārāyaṇa; therefore another of her names is Cañcalā, restless. She cannot be peaceful unless she is in the company of her husband, Nārāyaṇa. For example, Lakṣmī was carried away by the materialistic Rāvaṇa. Rāvaṇa kidnapped Sītā, the goddess of fortune belonging to Lord Rāma. As a result, Rāvaṇa’s entire family, opulence and kingdom were smashed, and Sītā, the goddess of fortune, was recovered from his clutches and reunited with Lord Rāma. Thus all property, riches and wealth belong to Kṛṣṇa.

Everyone now feels tremors that we fear are the first rumblings of kingdoms smashing. Many hope President Barack Obama can save us. It is interesting, in this regard, that the President happens to always carry a talisman of Hanumān, acquired when he lived in Indonesia:

barack-obama-hanuman-statue-copy

Is it too much to hope that he can come to understand the meaning of Rāmāyaṇa and follow in the footsteps of Hanumān? We can pray.

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Flowers of Devotion

Kairava

Spanning the cusp between the 15th and 16th centuries, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu taught and exemplified complete absorption in divine love through the chanting of the names of God. Mahāprabhu propagated a spiritual discipline that carries the guided practitioner through clearly demarcated stages, beginning with a tentative interest (adau śraddhā) and culminating in an extraordinary exultation of ecstatic spiritual emotions (prema). Mahāprabhu succinctly conveyed this whole adventure in a sequence of eight instructive verses (Śikṣāṣṭaka).

The first of these verses is, in essence, a promise by the author: when the chanting of the name of Kṛṣṇa is fully accomplished, all anomalies and impediments being weeded out (vijayate śri-kṛṣṇa-saṁkīrtanam), the chanter will have experienced seven benedictions or blessings. The aspirant should therefore have faith (śraddhā) in this promise—a guarantee, really. . . .

Mahāprabhu proclaims: “Let there be all victory,” vijayate, for śri-kṛṣṇa-saṁkīrtanam, the consummate practice of the glorification of Kṛṣṇa’s name. Kīrtana means praising, chanting, and so on. The prefix saṁ– indicates that kīrtana is undertaken together, as a social activity; saṁ– also means that the kīrtana is done in a way that is thorough or complete. There is a process for cultivating the divine names, and saṁkīrtana indicates the culmination of that process—when undertaken in the association of devotees, it reaches its full consummation.

Vijayate śri-kṛṣṇa-saṁkīrtanam: These words conclude the verse. The text proceeding them sets forth the seven blessings in the form of predicates that describe or elucidate this saṁkīrtanam. (I’m using “predicate” in its logical rather than its grammatical sense. In logic, a “predicate” is simply something affirmed or asserted about a given subject.)  This text achieves a power poetic effect by having all the predicates precede the subject; when the subject is finally announced, the whole meaning of the text is revealed with the single dazzling of a lightning-flash.

Here I just want to share something I’ve learned about the third blessing or benediction. Over the years, I have found the close and detailed study of Śikṣāṣṭaka to be ever rewarding. I will often spend several days or even weeks meditating on a single phrase or verse, for example, and uncover deeper meaning and significance.

Sometimes the text presents the sort of puzzle or problem that sets off some research. This is what happened with the third blessing or benediction.

The first three benedictions take the form of increasingly complex predicates. So before I get to the third, let me just mention the first two.

First: ceto-darpana-marjanam. In Sanskrit, these three words combined form a single compound, a descriptive phrase in grammatical apposition to the final  śri-kṛṣṇa-saṁkīrtanam.  This first predicate says that saṁkīrtana is that which cleanses (marjanam) the mirror (darpana) of consciousness or intelligence (cetas). Our inward awareness is intended to reflect reality clearly, like a well-polished mirror. But now that mirror of our awareness has become befouled and besmirched by the accumulated crud of lifetimes. What can we see?

dirty-mirror-2

Saṁkīrtana is the transcendent cleanser that  restores our consciousness to its original flawless and pristine condition. Then we can directly perceive what is always immediately before us: Kṛṣṇa.

Second: bhava-mahā-dāvāgni-nirvāpaṇam. In the second metaphor, our material existence (bhava) is likened to a huge (mahā) forest fire (dāvāgni). Saṁkīrtana is the extinguisher (nirvāpaṇam) of that blazing fire. The material world is the burning forest itself. If we find ourselves engulfed by a monstrous forest fire, terror and suffering are our only fate. The conflagration engulfing us is so monstrous no human efforts can deliver us.

forest-fire

Yet suddenly, the sky opens up, and rain come pouring down, and we are saved.  Saṁkīrtana is that rain.

Interestingly, the word nirvāpaṇam (that which causes extinction) is derived from the causative form of the Sanskrit verbal root nir-vā, meaning to put out or extinguish. This same verbal root is the source of the word nirvāṇa. (Thanks to Dvijamaṇi Prabhu for this.)

Now we come to the third benediction: śreyaḥ-kairava-candrikā-vitaraṇam. Here, the word śreyas denotes one’s ultimate benefit. In his tranlation of this verse Prabhupāda rendered it as “good fortune,” but in similar contexts elsewhere he tended to translate śreyas as “supreme benefit,” “ultimate good,” and “eternal good fortune.” He often elucidated the word by contrasting it with the word preyas. For example:

It is a child’s nature to engage all day and night in playing, not caring even for his health and other important concerns. This is an example of preyas, or immediately beneficial activities. But there are also śreyas, or activities which are ultimately auspicious. According to Vedic civilization, a human being must be God conscious. He should understand what God is, what this material world is, who he is, and what their interrelationships are. This is called śreyas, or ultimately auspicious activity.

In the Śikṣāṣṭaka metaphor, our śreyas is compared with a kairava, a “white lotus,” as it is usually translated. The next word in the compound, candrikā, means moonlight, and the final word vitaraṇam means that which emits or spreads. What spreads moonlight is none other than the moon.

The kairava, according to the Monier-Williams dictionary,  is “the white lotus-flower (blossoming at night).” . In fact, the dictionary gives, as an appellation of the moon,  the compound word kairava-bandhu, “friend of the [kairava] lotus-flower.” In order to blossom, the kairava depends upon the kindness of the moon.

Thus this third metaphor states that saṁkīrtana makes our eternal good fortune manifest, just like the waxing moon, producing a pale and cooling light which spreading throughout the woodlands, causes the white-lotus flower to open its petals.

At one point, I became captivated by the imagery of this line. On trips to India, I asked various devotees what they knew about the night-blooming kairava. A few said they’d heard that the plant was actually not a lotus. The blossoms of the lotus open up during the day, and close up at night, whereas the kairava blossom shuts during the day and opened at night.

In time, I was able to confirm that they are correct.

The lotus, strictly speaking—the “sacred lotus” of India—is the Nelumbo nucifera.  Characteristically, it is pink in color and has a distinctive pericarp or seed pod. It is called padma in Sanskrit, and its blossom open up in sunlight, as we can see from a epithet of the sun: padma-bandhu, friend of the lotus.

padma

Padma or “Sacred lotus”

The kairva, strictly speaking, is not a lotus (genus Nelumbo), but a lily, belonging to the Nymphaea genus. However, its specific scientific name is Nymphaea lotus, a nomenclature that probably both reflects confusion and adds to it as well. The kairava’s common names in English include: Egyptian Lotus, Egyptian Water-Lily, Tiger Lotus, Tropical Night-Blooming Water Lily, Waterlily, White Egyptian Lotus, White Lotus, White Water-Lily.

The Tropical Night-blooming White Water-lily (I’m fond of this name) is highly prized for its stunning beauty and fragrance.

These pictures show its beauty, and the last one even attests to its fragrance.

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Now I can more fully appreciate Mahāprabhu’s blessing: Love for Kṛṣṇa, opening like the kairava flower under the soothing rays of the bright moon of saṁkīrtana, will present to the world its own captivating beauty and fragrance, just as the kairava ornaments the night with the white stars of its blossoms and suffuses the woodland glades and bowers with its intoxicating aroma.

Atasī

In the Bhāgavatam (11.5.27) the yogendra Karabhājana tells King Nimi that the Lord descends in Dvāpara-yuga with a complexion of dark blue color (śyāma). This statement is amplified in the purport: “The Lord’s transcendental body in Dvāpara-yuga can be compared to the color of a dark blue flower.” We may wonder, “What dark blue flower?” It turns out that this same Bhāgavatam verse is quoted by Mahāprabhu to Sanātana Gosvāmī, and there Prabhupāda comments: “The śyāma color is not exactly blackish. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Thākura compares it to the color of the atasī flower.”

Monier-Williams tells us that the atasī is the “common flax, Linum usitatissimum.”  This highly useful, long cultivated plant provides the fiber that are the source of linen fabrics. Its seeds are rich in lignans and Omega-3 fatty acids, beneficial to health. The flower of the common flax, it turns out, is light blue. However, there is one variety of flax (Linum perenne, the “perennial flax”) that does bear a dark blue flower. This, then, seems to be the śyāma in Śyāmasundara (“dark blue and beautiful”) Kṛṣṇa:

linum-perenne

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