Category Archives: Addtional Writings

Saṁsāra in California

As I write, California burns. Multiple wildfires continue to afflict the land.

California! For so long the migratory terminus of American dreams, her own Hollywood gave those dreams back to the world crafted in dazzling pageants of lights and shadows that seemed more real than reality itself. Yet California herself now suffers under multiply woes, most of them, like the Los Angeles fires, self-inflicted.

The state’s budgetary mess has become the stuff of legend, and the one-time paragon of material progress seems on the descent toward third-world status. Yet the main engine of decline is the state’s own electorate, captivated by the spell of an ancient error, described in Vedic literature as “the fallacy of half a hen,” ardha-kukkuṭī-nyāya.

A man cherishes the egg-producing end of his hen, but resents the expense of providing for the other end, the mouth which eats. He thinks he’ll do better if he cuts off the eating end. By various referendums the voters have radically circumscribed the states ability to tax, but still want the state to provide benefits. Even their Hollywood superhero governor cannot save them by conjuring something from nothing.

Ah, the material world.

Now California illustrates another ancient Vedic trope: This world as wildfire.

THE METAPHOR OF THE WILDFIRE

Should we find ourselves at some time surrounded by a monstrous wildfire, we are doomed; there is no way out for us. So the uncontrollable conflagration of a wildfire or forest fire becomes used as an apt emblem for our factual state in this world: Death surrounds and engulfs us, and there is no escape.

Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu uses the Sanskrit compound bhava-mahā-dāvāgni: Bhava, material existence, is a huge (mahā), forest fire (dāvāgni). He says that sakīrtana, the cultivation of the divine names in association of devotees, causes the extinction (nirvāpanam) of the fire.

Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhakura develops this imagery. Saṁsāra-dāvānala-līha-loka, he writes. Saṁsāra, the unending cycle of birth and death in which we are trapped, is like a forest fire, dāva-anala, that consumes (ha) the whole world (loka).

If we are trapped in a huge conflagration, no human agency may rescue us. Yet should the clouds open above and pour down rain, we are saved. Therefore, Viśvanātha Ṭhakura writes that the Vaiṣṇava guru is like a cloud heavy with rain (ghanāghanatvam) whose downpour of mercy (kāruṇya) obliterates the all-consuming fires of saṁsāra.

The image of this world as an all-devouring fire should be kept in mind. The Vedic sages advise us to see this world as it is. Kṛṣṇa notes that those who are great souls (mahātmas) understand this world as dukhālayam (full of suffering) and aśāśvatam (temporary).

To those dedicated to preserving their illusions, the sober realism of the wise looks like pessimism.

A California scene: In 1970, in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, a huge crowd of counter-youth gathers for Rathyatra. Prabhupāda—coming like the raincloud—praises them for their frustration and discontent:

In this country especially, in all other countries also, the younger generation are not very satisfied. In your country, they say that the frustrated community, the confused community, the hippies. But I have got all sympathy for these frustrated community, everywhere. They should be frustrated. In the Vedānta-sūtra it is said that athāto brahma jijñāsā. This human form of life should feel frustration. If he does not feel frustration, then it is animal life. The symptom of human life is that he should be very much pessimistic, not optimistic, of this material world. Then there is path of liberation. And if we think that we are very much happy here, that is called illusion, māyā. Nobody is actually happy here. But if anyone wrongly thinks that he is happy, that is called māyā, illusion.

So my request to you, those who are feeling frustration, confused, this is a good qualification. Good qualification in this sense: that those who are feeling frustration and confused, they are disgusted with this materialistic way of life. That is a good qualification for spiritual advancement. But if you are not properly guided, then that will be another frustration. That will be another frustration. To save you from that frustration, this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement has come to your country, Lord Caitanya’s movement.

We are being devoured by the all consuming flames of saṁsāra, yet we think we are safe.

Therefore, we may contemplate with profit the photograph below. Here is the very emblem and image of our true condition, captured in a contemporary California picture.

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THE METAPHOR OF THE DEER

In a number of places, Śrīmad Bhāgavatam compares the conditioned human being to a mṛga, a deer.

In 4.29.53, Nārada Muni likens the oblivious human being to a deer grazing with his mate happily in the forest. The stag is absorbed in the taste of the sweet grass and enchanted by the humming of the bees. He does not know that in front of him a tiger is crouching, preparing to spring, and that behind him a hunter stalks with drawn bow.

The deer is noted for its tendency  to be easily fooled by a mirage. A Sanskrit word for mirage is mṛga-tṛṣṇā, that which induces thirst in the deer. In 7.13.29, a saintly brāhmaṇa tells Prahlāda Mahārāja: “Just as a deer, because of ignorance, cannot see the water within a well covered by grass, but runs after a mirage [mga-tṛṣṇām], the living entity covered by the material body does not see the happiness within himself, but runs after happiness in the material world.”

In 11.5.34, the yogīndra named Karabhājana predicts the appearance of the kali-yuga avatāra who will teach, and so deliver the bewildered souls. Here the conditioned soul is indicated by the word māyā-mga, a deluded deer. Commenting on this word in a lecture in New Delhi in 1973, Prabhupāda says:

We are entrapped by the false reality,māyā. Māyāmgaṁ dayitayepsitam anvadhāvat [SB 11.5.34]. Māyā-mgam: just like the deer, he runs toward the false water in the desert. But the water goes ahead more and more, and the poor animal, without finding water, dies. But a sane man does not go. A sane man knows that reflection of water is not water. But because there is no water in the desert, it does not mean that there is no water. The water is there, but not in the desert. That is knowledge.

We are advised by Kṛṣṇa to become sages who see with the eyes of knowledge (jñāna-cakṣuṣa). We may use these metaphors to educate our senses. See saṁsāra in wildfires, and the deluded living being in the deer.

Here, courtesy of California, is a photograph that put both together. Contemplate it with the eyes of knowledge and reflect, “Here I am”:

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Monsoon Parade—Queens

Queens flag

The consolidated city of New York comprises five boroughs (each a county): Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island. Among these, the borough of Queens is blessed with The Kṛṣṇa-Balarāma Mandir, which stands in the neighborhood of Richmond Hill.

“Queens County,” we learn, “is one of the most ethnically diverse areas on earth. There are over 130 different languages spoken by its citizens, and in many neighborhoods hearing English is rare.” Richmond Hill is home to many Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, and Sikh gurdwaras that minister to the local, twice-exiled Indian communities from Caribbean lands like Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname.

On August 2nd, a warm but stormy Sunday, Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma (Śrī Śrī Hari-Haladhārī) went out on a parade through Richmond Hill. Outside the temple at 111-14 101 Ave., devotees chanted as Hari-Haladhārī were escorted from their altar to the van that would convey them to their chariot:

SunandaSunanda Dāsa, the temple president, playing drum, leads kīrtana


Mahesvara Carrying Balarama 1Maheśvara Dāsa, assisted by Nityānanda Dāsa, carries Balarāma from temple to the waiting van


Mahesvara Carrying Balarama 2
Mahe
śvara holds The Holder of the Plow (Haladhārī)


Balarama in vanBalarāma in van, cradled by Bhūṣāra Dāsa


For the record, our taking out large marble Deities on parade created some controversy.  When the idea of this parade first occurred to Sunanda, he called to ask me, his spiritual master, whether it could be done. Was it bona fide?  At once I answered “yes,” and then I recounted a conversation I had in 1974 with Śrīla Prabhupāda himself on this very topic.

That year, I talked with Prabhupāda in his quarters in New Vṛndāvana and gave him an account of our recent Philadelphia Rathayātrā, with the largest cart ever.

Prabhupāda’s  response was enthusiastic. He extolled such parades as extremely important. The Deities, he said, can be taken out on parade four times a year. He mentioned Janmāṣṭamī as one such occasion. “Oh, Lord Jagannātha will go out then, too?” I asked. “No,” said Prabhupāda. “Not Jagannātha. Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa.”

Surprised, I exclaimed: “The big Deities?”

He paused a beat and said “Yes. They can go.”

“Isn’t that risky?” I asked.

“Just be careful.” Prabhupāda answered.

He went on to say that when Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa come out in procession, the participants in front of the Deity car hold upraised poles or standards, made of silver or gold, surmounted by lion’s heads.

Then, returning to the earlier topic about bringing out big marble Deities, he said that some temples had special replicas of the altar Deities just for going out of the temple for festivals. He called them “vijaya-vigraha.”

But, he said again, the altar Deities themselves could be taken out, but one had to be very careful.

Having heard this from me, Sunanda went ahead with the festival plans. But soon, other ISKCON authorities registered objections to the marble Deities’ being taken out. By that time, however, the plans and preperations were too far along to change. We understood the concern for the safety of the Deities and planned to have vijaya-vigraha for next year’s festival.

In the meantime, we would take Prabhupāda’s “just be careful” very seriously. That’s why Sunanda and I were thankful for the help of Maheśvara—devout, highly experienced, and strong.

Mahesvara placing Balarama on chariotWith the care of a mother for her baby, Maheśvara places Haladhārī on the chariot


Suspension System 2Suspension system for Deities’ throne on the chariot


Suspension System 1

Manu constructed this remarkable suspension system for the Deities’ throne. A professional in this matter, Manu said the system is used to protect highly sensitive payloads (like electronics or explosives) from shocks.


Kirtan before ParadeKīrtana before the parade starts


Umbrellas Come Out 1The umbrellas come out


Umbrellas Come Out 2More umbrellas

This year we’ve undergone a monsoon season in the northeast United States. The Ratha-yātrā in Purī also takes place during the rainy season.


Gaura NitaiGaura Nitāi led the procession. These are the Deities of Akhilānanda Dāsa. He also provided the chariot for Kṛṣṇa-Balarāma.


Singing in the Rain 1Getting ready


Setting OffSetting off


Siva, Hanuman, GanesaOther divinities join the procession: Śiva, Hanumān, and Gaeśa


Lion-headed standardBearing the lion-headed standard (see conversation with Prabhupāda above)


Singing in the Rain 3“Singin’ In The Rain”


Singing in the Rain 2More “Singin’ In The Rain”


Walking on roadsProceeding on roads first washed clean by Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma


Candrasekhara SwamiCandraśekhara Swami wet, but, as they say, “smokin’”


AkhilanandaAkhilānanda adds brass


Richmond Hill Residents 2Richmond Hill residents watch under cover


Richmond Hill Residents 1Devotees of Lakmī-Nārāyaa come out to see the mobile Lords


Richmond Hill Residents 3More residents of the place sometimes called “New Guyana”


Richmond Hill Residents 4More residents watch from on high


Residents Bring OfferingsResidents along the way bring offerings for the Deities and distribute prasāda to the celebrants


HaryasvaHaryaśva Dāsa adapts completely to the aquatic environment, manifests appropriate form


MannequinsEven the mannequins gaze on Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma with unblinking eyes


Joyous conclusion 1A joyous conclusion


Joyous conclusion 3


Krishna-Balarama on altarKṛṣṇa and Balarāma return safely to their altar


A final note: Any pilgrimage to New York requires a visit to the Deities presiding in three boroughs:

Radha GovindaThe spectacular Rādhā-Govinda in Brooklyn


Radha MurlidhariThe merciful Rādhā-Murlīdhāra in Manhattan


Hari Haladhari on Balarama PurnimaThe playful Hari-Haladhārī in Queens


As of now, Staten Island and The Bronx still await their Lords. . . .


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Texas Retreat

How did this happen? Two weeks in Montgomery, Texas, alleged “birthplace of the Texas flag!”

Montgomery, TX

In June! How did I end up here!

Yet not untypical, somehow, of the crowd of unexpected events that render the adventure of spiritual life so endlessly fascinating . . . .

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Puruṣa Sukta Prabhu, of Bhagavat Life, found the place: a retreat center run by the White Eagle Lodge, located on their seventy-acre wildlife refuge.

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In this place, the director of Bhagavat Life scheduled a pair of back-to-back five-day japa retreats (Level I followed by Level II) in the St. John Retreat Center. Most retreatants were devotees from Houston, Dallas, and Austin.

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Required personnel for a retreat: One Facilitator: Arcana-siddhī dāsī (Level I) and Mahātma dāsa (Level II); Two “Sadhus:” Girirāja Swami and Ravīndra Svarūpa dāsa (both for both levels), Kīrtana leader: Baḍa Haridāsa (both levels); Cooks: Apūrva dāsa and Sarvabhauma dāsa (both levels).

Apūrva added more stars to his reputation, as the increasingly haggard-looking cooks cooked tirelessly:

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We set up a comfy meeting room for our chanting and other spiritual activities:

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Girirāja Swami placed on our altar an extraordinary mūrti of Namācārya Haridāsa Ṭhākura:

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This mūrti was carved from wood of a branch of the ancient Siddha Bakul tree, where Haridāsa used to sit and chant. The branch had been torn off by wind:

Siddha Bakul Tree

Evenings, Baḍahari reliably induced out-of-body experiences in me as he lead kīrtana on the harmonium:

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Girirāja Swami guided and enlightened us:

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His assistant, Bhakta Richie, a native of El Paso, Texas, soon became celebrated as the “Del Norte Kid.” He worked hard:

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All the while, as we air-conditioned retreatants explored the internal potency through the holy name, southeast Texas suffered miserably through a drought as well as record high temperatures—as high as 104° F (40° C). Outdoors,  it was as if every atom were on fire (bhavamahādāvāgni). We ventured into our surroundings only during the beginnings and ends of the blazing days.

Everywhere we saw the drought-stricken thirsty earth opening her parched lips to pray for rain:

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As the sun reddened the western horizon, we meandered though the wildlife refuge, on paths adorned with edifying messages:

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I was tempted to become one with nature:

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The followers of the lodge, committed vegetarians, showed their loved for animals inside the retreat center:

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As well as out:

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Next door, some lodge members maintained a sanctuary for wolves (most of them abused or abandoned):

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Girirāja Maharāja and I went to see the wolves and their caretakers. Jean, the sanctuary director, told us that  hunting or fishing is not allowed on their land. Neighbors were upset because their lakes and ponds teemed with protected fish:

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Among ourselves, we observed the end of the retreat with prayers and commitments, solemnized by the tying of a “saṁkalpa thread” around the wrist:

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Listen to recordings of the Texas Retreat here.

(retreat photos: Sraddha devi)

Great State of Texas: Farewell!

Texas Farewell

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Doctors of Happiness

The latest findings of Dr. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor both funny and smart, derived from assiduous research into (human) happiness, have revealed to him an important truth that will already be familiar to students of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam.

That venerable text recounts (in Chapter 82 of Canto 10) a discussion among certain learned personages—doctors in the original sense of the term—who dwelt on the planet called Janaloka, which can be regarded as the Harvard of our entire cosmos. During this celestial colloquium, one of the sages tells how, at the beginning of creation, the Vedas in personal form (Śrutis), awaken Mahā-Viṣṇu from his mystic slumber by hymning him with the very knowledge they themselves embody or personify.

The Sanskrit word veda means knowledge. Although any valid knowledge is veda, in the strict sense veda denotes the uncreated and eternal knowledge on the basis of which the entire material creation is produced by Mahā-Viṣṇu (and his agents). The world is designed according to prior Vedic knowledge, as engineers assemble an aircraft from blueprints.  Veda is not to be confounded with the “knowledge” we humans work up from our investigations of the world and our picayune efforts to reverse-engineer bits of creation.

All the same, a humble laborer in the human knowledge-factory like Professor  Gilbert sometimes stumbles on truth, and there is truth to be found in his well-received book Stumbling on Happiness. This truth is conveyed in the title of his recent blog posting “What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous,” reprinted on the op-ed page of the May 20th issue of The New York Times.

Our unhappiness, Professor Gilbert finds, arises not so much from our present circumstances, exiguous though they may be, as from our anxieties concerning our future. We have a neural mechanism that can keep us happy even in difficult times, he argues; it is fear about the uncertainties of the future that renders people anxious and miserable.

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Dr. Gilbert is certainly correct.

Here, from the Bhāgavatam (10.87.32) is the statement of the Śrutis to the Lord:

The wise, who understand how your māyā utterly bewilders all people, devote themselves completely to you, the source of liberation. How could the terrors of existence afflict your faithful followers?  For those who refuse your shelter, your furrowed brow manifests the turning three-rimmed wheel of time, which keeps them perpetually in fear.

In this passage, the terrors of existence (bhava-bhayam) are explicitly related to the movement of time, whose rim is composed of three sections—past, present, and future.

Śrīla Prabhupāda puts it succinctly in his commentary to Bhagavad-gītā 10.4-5: “Fear is due to worrying about the future.” He expands on this:

A person in Kṛṣṇa consciousness has no fear because by his activities he is sure to go back to the spiritual sky, back home, back to Godhead. Therefore his future is very bright. Others, however, do not know what their future holds; they have no knowledge of what the next life holds. So they are therefore in constant anxiety.

An interesting Sanskrit word that indicates a state of security, devoid of any anxiety, is kṣema. It is derived from the verbal root kṣi, which means to abide, stay, or dwell, especially in an undisturbed or secret residence. Kṣema as a noun means safety, peace, rest, security. The Monier-Williams dictionary tells us that the phrase kṣema te—“peace or security may be unto thee”—is cited in Manu’s Lawbook as “a polite address to a Vaiśya [merchant], asking him whether his property is secure.”

We encounter the word kṣema in the Bhagavad-gītā 9.22, where Kṛṣṇa avers that for those who concentrate on him exclusively, remaining perpetually fixed in devotion, he bears the burden of their yogakṣemam. In this compound, yoga—which has a root sense of yoking or joining—means acquisition (of goods, for example), and kṣemam means the secure possession of that which has been acquired. Kṛṣṇa, then, promises that for devotees wholely dedicated to and dependent upon him, he himself assumes the burden (vahāmi) of seeing that they get what they require and securely possess whatever they have gained.

In the commentary, Prabhupāda elucidates yogakṣemam in its spiritual context:

Such a devotee undoubtedly approaches the Lord without difficulty. This is called yoga. By the mercy of the Lord, such a devotee never comes back to this material condition of life. Kṣema refers to the merciful protection of the Lord. The Lord helps the devotee to achieve Kṛṣṇa consciousness by yoga, and when he becomes fully Kṛṣṇa conscious the Lord protects him from falling down to a miserable conditioned life.

In other places, Prabhupāda cites this text as assuring that Kṛṣṇa takes responsibility for even the material necessities of a devotee.

In such cases, the devotee is released from all anxiety about the future.

The word kṣema makes an interesting appearance in the 11th Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, which tells of King Nimi’s meeting with the nine Yogendras, the great liberated sons of Ṛṣabhadeva, who traveled together freely throughout the universe. Nimi asks them (11.2.20) to explicate the ātyantikaṁ kṣemam—the unsurpassable good or supreme position of peace and security.

The phrase is explained in the commentary to the verse:

According to Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī the words ātyantikaṁ kṣemam, or “the supreme good,” indicate that situation in which one cannot be touched by even the slightest fear. Now we are entangled in the cycle of birth, old age, disease and death (saṁsāre). Because our entire situation can be devastated in a single moment, we are constantly in fear. But the pure devotees of the Lord can teach us the practical way to free ourselves from material existence and thus to abolish all types of fear.

Dr. Gilbert sees uncertainty of the future as the source of unhappiness. In his blog, he presents instances in which patients made certain by physicians of a future medical affliction are nevertheless happier than those whom physicians give only the possibility of the affliction.

Yet we can understand that such happiness is relative. Anxiety remains. No one knows with any surety what the future will bring, and all face the ultimate unknown death, “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns,” as Hamlet observed in his famous soliloquy. The fear is always with us, try as we will to pay it no mind. As William James noted, not much is needed to bring “the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight into full view.”

John Updike has a typically stunning metaphor: “We all dream, and we all stand aghast at the mouth of the caves of our deaths; and this is our way in.”

Cave“The Way In”

Dr. Gilbert of Harvard has informed us about the happiness problem, but he has much more to do. The learned doctors of Janaloka, the nine wise “masters of yoga,” understand what he knows and then some. . . .

When the time comes, we should have no uncertainty.

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Scenes From Life—West Virginia Springtime

Last weekend I visited New Vrindavan for a meeting of the ISKCON North American leaders. I got away once and a while to check out the local flora and fauna . . .

NV 1Says It All . . . Almost

NV 2Two Guardians and An Entrance

NV 3Passive Water Feature

NV 4Gathering of Local Residents

NV 5Wise, Ancient Catfish with Tilaka

NV 6Serving Prasadam to Local Residents

NV 7Hungry

NV 8Motherhood

NV 9Swanboat

NV 10Local Lords

NV 11Benediction

NV 12Mercy

NV 13More Mercy

NV 14Male Peacockery—The Prototype

NV 15Spider Mandala

NV 16Directions

NV 17Calf in Repose

NV 18Goatee—The Prototype

NV 19Big Eye

NV 20Tourist

NV 21Green Meeting

NV 22Apple Envy

NV 23Guardian of the Palace

NV 24Palace Path

NV 24bActive Water Feature

NV 25Greeting from Bahulavan

NV 26Old Temple

NV 27Bahulavan Rising

NV 28Visit www.bahulavan.org

NV 29Altar where Radha-Vrindaban Candra Once Reigned

NV 30Silent Echos of  Kirtans Past

NV 31Reflecting on the Past

NV 32Path to Old Festival Site

NV 331972 Site of Prabhupada Vyasa Puja and Bhagavata Dharma Discourse

NV 34True

NV 35Spiritual Sentiments of the Rainbow Tribe

NV 36View From Festival Site

NV 37Pilgrims before Radha-Vrindaban Candra

NV 38Radha Vrindavan Candra In Person

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To Boldly Go Where We’ve All Gone Before

Star Trek, the franchise that never dies, has, like the vampire, returned among us, this time in a clever “prequel” to the original ’60s space opera TV series. In this, the eleventh of the series-spawned feature films, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the other starship Enterprise voyagers appear as “sexy young cadets,” as David Hajdu describes them in his illuminating op-ed piece on the “Star Trek” phenomenon in last Sunday’s Times.

I confess to having been utterly underwhelmed when the original series debuted back in 1966. I didn’t watch the show regularly—I didn’t even own a TV set—but what I did see made me wonder at the enthusiasm of some acquaintances (who apparently sustained the franchise for years to come as Trekie cultists).

The most disheartening feature of the TV episodes was, to me, its utter failure of imagination. The program’s now-famous slogan “To boldly go where no man has gone before” promised wonders that the series itself consistently failed to deliver. The strange new worlds, the alien civilizations so remote they were accessible only by faster-than-light travel, turned out to be uncannily like familiar earthly culture of the past, such as ancient Rome or Egypt, or the American old West, the Berlin of the 1930s, and so on. Focusing on this odd feature of the original series, Hajdu, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, unveils the truth: “‘Star Trek’ was, from the start, more nostalgic than futuristic.”

The original series was never really about the 23rd century or outer space; and to think of it only in those terms is to misunderstand the show and ignore its real legacy. Despite its technological gimmickry — the flashing light bulbs and the transporter beams and the cafeteria dispenser that synthesizes the atomic structure of any lunch order — the series was essentially a trek around the past, and not even the real past, but the past of vintage Hollywood movies. Its fictions always had less to do with science than with popular entertainment itself.

Hajdu goes on to point out that in the sixties TV networks found they could satisfy their growing audience cheaply by filling up airtime with old Hollywood movies. I can personally vouch for what Hajdu says:

Thus, the children of the ’60s became the first generation to grow up on the whole catalog of American movies, not just the films of their own day; they were the first to have a free education in pop history and to develop a hardy appetite for kitsch.

It was this taste for an illusory past, for a Hollywood-manufactured past, for history as kitsch, that “Star Trek” aimed to satisfy. Hajdu does more than present an acute cultural and historical perception. His research turns up a smoking gun: The pitch for “Star Trek” that Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, presented to the producers—who had become owners of old Hollywood movie lots with their multitude of sets.

“The majority of story premises …can be accomplished on such common studio back lot locales and sets such as Early 1900 Street, Oriental Village, Cowtown, Border Fort, Victorian Drawing Room, Forest and Streamside,” wrote Roddenberry in his original pitch. “Interiors and exteriors temporarily available after an ‘Egyptian’ motion picture, a ‘horror’ epic, or even an unusual telefilm, could be used to meet the needs of a number of story premises.”

Hajdu concludes:

The creative re-use of studio sets may have begun as a way to keep costs down. But the show made a kind of loopy pastiche pulp art by appropriating, referencing and recombining ideas from film history, going imaginatively — and, yes, even boldly — where many had gone before.

One wonders whether life imitated “a kind of loopy pastiche pulp art” when the real America NASA space program expropriated the show’s motto for the title of its account of its most famous venture: Where No Man Has Gone Before: A History of Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions. Moreover, as a result of a write-in campaign, NASA named its first Space Shuttle orbiter the , after the famed Star Trek craft.

EnterpriseThe Real Enterprise

Enterprise shuttleThe NASA Imitation Enterprise

In the 1960s space exploration was conducted on a number of levels. We’ve just looked at Hajdu’s analysis of the pop-culture space exploration of “Star Trek.” And then there was NASA’s famed effort, another made-for-TV production.  All America was glued to their screens in July of 1969 to watch the lunar lander descend and see the suited astronauts bounce across the moon’s dusty surface.

But space exploration meant something else again to thousands of American youth of the time. They had prepared themselves well for the space adventure. And when they gathered before TV screens to witness the momentous event, they enacted their own, parallel, space exploration under the propellant of hallucinogenic doses of acid.  NASA was interested in exploring mere outer space. The far more intrepid adventure opened to those who explored inner space.

At the beginning of each episode of “Star Trek,” a voice-over by Captain Kirk intoned the full text from which the series signature slogan was extracted:

Space. . . . The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

These were the expectations of all three types of space voyages. In retrospect, we can see that all have let us down.  We remain earthbound; our flights—whether of script-writers’ fantasy, or liquid-nitrogen propelled rockets, or pharmaceutically induced transcendence—have left us back where we were before, or in even a worse place, stuck with the same old problems on an even more endangered globe.

Yet there was another adventure beyond earth launched in those days of Star Trek, Apollo project, and LSD. This adventure brought the ancient past together with contemporary efforts and even something of the science-fiction-y future.

“Stay High Forever! No More Comedowns” proclaimed a handbill distributed by the Hare Krishnas in the fall of 1966. An explanation soon followed in Back to Godhead magazine:

The effects of the drugs are only temporary; the drug user is “up” shortly after taking the drug, but after a few hours he “comes down.” Krishna Consciousness teaches how to “stay high forever” without bringdowns, by chanting one’s way into eternity. Nor do drugs free one from material hankerings such as food, sex desires, etc..,but sometimes rather provoke desires.

Some members of the Society experienced psychedelic drugs extensively before meeting Swami Bhaktivedanta, and they now no longer take them. Some consider their previous drug experiences as a kind of spiritual “undergraduate” study and now consider Krishna Consciousness to be graduate school study. Krishna Consciousness teaches one how to swim in the spiritual ocean without water-wings.

It is no coincidence that the ancient Vedic sage Nārada Muni became a favorite and much-beloved figure , among the early counterculture Krishna converts. The reason can be found in the way Prabhupāda had introduced this personage in his first volumes of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, written and published in India prior to his voyage to America. In those pages, the spiritual refugees from both the culture and the counterculture were able to read, in the purport to 1.6.31:

As stated in the Bhagavad-gītā, there are three divisions of the material spheres, namely the ūrdhvaloka (topmost planets), madhyaloka (midway planets) and adholoka (downward planets). Beyond the ūrdhvaloka planets . . . are the material coverings of the universes, and above that is the spiritual sky . . . . Śrī Nārada Muni could enter all these planets in both the material and spiritual spheres without restriction, as much as the almighty Lord is free to move personally in any part of His creation. In the material world the living beings are influenced by the three material modes of nature, namely goodness, passion and ignorance. But Śrī Nārada Muni is transcendental to all these material modes, and thus he can travel everywhere unrestricted. He is a liberated spaceman.

And (1.13.14, purport):

Nārada is a spaceman who can travel unrestrictedly, not only within the material universes but also in the spiritual universes. Even Nārada used to visit the palace of Mahārāja Yudhṣṭhira and what to speak of other celestial demigods. It is only the spiritual culture of the people concerned that makes interplanetary travel possible, even in the present body.

And (1.13.60, purport):

Śrī Nāradajī is an eternal spaceman, having been endowed with a spiritual body by the grace of the Lord. He can travel in the outer spaces of both the material and spiritual worlds without restriction and can approach any planet in unlimited space within no time. . . . . Because of his association with pure devotees, he was elevated to the position of an eternal spaceman and thus had freedom of movement. One should therefore try to follow in the footsteps of Nārada Muni and not make a futile effort to reach other planets by mechanical means.

Narada MuniThe Eternal Spaceman

The first Hare Krishna artifact I owned, as a matter of fact, was a Nārada Muni black light poster, purchased in a local head shop. On my wall the eternally liberated spaceman shined in vibrating hot-pink within a luminous border, in which the mahā-mantra, sinuous in psychedelic font, pulsed between edgings of psychedelic ornamentation.

A drawing of Nārada Muni also decorated the cover of the first Hare Krishna literature I read, a fifty-cent booklet by Prabhupāda entitled Two Essays, acquired in 1969 from a robed and shaven-headed devotee on a campus walkway.

The spiritual voyage of the devotees was quite consciously intended to supplant all the bold but vain adventures of popular culture, the counterculture, and the military-scientific culture shared by the astro- and cosmonauts of the USA-USSR “space race.”

This vaunted venture into the “new frontier” of space, this “great step for mankind,” was deconstructed by Prabhupāda as an innate spiritual urge misplaced, or displaced, onto the material platform, a deflection of the desire for transcendence that would only result in disappointment. For this reason, he advised, as in the Bhāgavatam text quote above, that we should “try to follow in the footsteps of Nārada Muni and not make a futile effort to reach other planets by mechanical means.”

Prabhupāda’s small book on this theme, Easy Journey to Other Planets, was first published in 1960 in India. (Price: 1 Rupee.) There he asserted that, even on the material platform, the ancient civilization of India had perfected a subtler and more advanced form of space travel through yoga:

Even if a materialist wants to enjoy developed material facilities, he can transfer himself to the other many many material planets where he can experience more and more advanced material pleasures. The best plan of life is to prepare oneself for going back definitely to the spiritual sky after leaving this body but yet if anyone wants to enjoy the largest amount of material facilities, one can transfer himself in the other planets, not by means of playful sputniks which are simply childish entertainments but by psychological effects and learning the art of transferring the soul by mystic powers.

Prabhupāda makes the case that all of this is intended to lead us to achieve the highest, transcendent, eternal planet, Kṛṣṇa-loka.

Prabhupāda’s original booklet had a simple cover:

Easy journey cover_0001

But the illustrated cover of the  first American edition made the comparison between the two kinds of ventures explicit:

easy-journey-cover

The most recent edition of the work has a more sophisticate cover, more in keeping with Prabhupāda’s original India title and sub-title, Easy Journey To Other Planets (by practice of Supreme Yoga):

Easy Journey new cover 2

Even after the televised Apollo moon landing of July, 1969, Prabhupāda continued to insist that the moon—richly described in the Vedas an opulent “heavenly planet,” a place of superior sensual happiness—had not been attained by “childish” mechanical means. He offered a variety of possible explanations. It could have been a hoax, the manned moon-landing a studio special effect: Prabhupāda recollected a motion picture depicting a large monkey climbing a skyscraper:

monkey skyscraper

This particular suspicion—which, like Hajdu’s expose of “Star Trek,” invokes images of old movie sets and studio special effects—is not at all limited to Prabhupäda, and proliferating moon-landing conspiracy theories even inspired yet another Hollywood production, the 1978 thriller Capricorn One.

Then again, Prabhupāda suggested in several places in his Bhāgavatam commentaries that the astronauts may have landed on the “invisible planet” Rāhu—the dark, barren, and hostile planet known in modern astronomy as the ascending lunar node. And, in a hypothesis that will conflict the least with the “consensual reality,” Prabhupāda said that the astronauts may have gone to the moon, but that they were unable or forbidden to “enter the atmosphere.” He compared them to illegal immigrants, who arrive in the desired country only to be sequestered in internment camps and then deported.

In any case, the once common phrase “the conquest of space” now reeks of astonishing overconfidence and vainglory. We may poke at it here and there, but “conquer?” We clearly cannot even conquer our own minds.

Those who have, those Vedic travelers with yogic powers like Nārada Muni, on the other hand, also have freely explored both the material and spiritual worlds, and have reported on those places we are restricted from entering.

Or so we hear. Of course, one may well claim that the Vedic tradition’s “easy journey” through “supreme yoga” that Prabhupāda presents is simply one more fantasy of escape and freedom.

Let me just note that modern people have characteristically been quick to deny or dismiss the achievements of ancient civilizations. Our modern mentality remains rooted in the 18th century Enlightenment, with its wholesale rejection of the traditional convictions and practices of the human race, judging them as little more than a mass of error and superstition. Consequently, humanity should start itself over and accept only what it can establish by cool reason and science, unshackled by inherited prejudices. We have long congratulated ourselves on our “progress” so produced.

Of course, the most intractable global problems we face today turn out to be consequences of that progress.

Even custodians of official knowledge have begun to acknowledge that our remote ancestors may have known much more that we have credited them with. Now we find a Ph.D. ethnobiologist from Harvard squatting in remote jungles as an apprentice to a naked and painted shaman in order to learn his pharmacopeia. Pharmaceutical giants seek patents from the knowledge of primitives.

Primitives were not primitive. For example, the abundant evidence is gradually surfacing that pre-Columbian America contained civilizations more populous and in many respects more advanced that those of Europe.

Prabhupāda claims that Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is the product of a far more advanced civilization that ours today. It tells of places and people far beyond the reach of the any Enterprise of “Star Trek” or NASA. It tells of a powerful material and spiritual technology based on mastery of yoga and mantra. Yet “modern man” can hardly be expected to accept it.

Here, for example, is the Indologist Harvey P. Alper, in his introduction to the scholarly collection he edited called Understanding Mantras: “Most of use who study mantras critically—historians, philosophers, Sanskritists—take the Enlightenment consensus for granted. We do not believe in magic. Generally, we do not pray.”

It is time to boldly go beyond the “Enlightenment consensus.” We should become skeptical of the skeptics themselves. After all, no less distinguished an authority than the late Arthur C. Clarke—an author of 2001: A Space Odyssey—has correctly noted: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Who knows? Maybe we’ll all come to set aside “childish sputniks” for the mantras of Nārada Muni.

Narada Muni animated

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Shock and Awe Avatāra

It is the summer of 1983. A jury in Orange County, California—that bastion of “traditional American values,” that home to Disneyland and the pioneering mega-church Crystal Cathedral—a jury stares at a large poster. Faces register shock and awe. They behold the astonishing Narasiha, the avatāra with the body of a man and the head of a lion, sitting before a shattered pillar. Across his lap stretches the disemboweled body of the demon-lord Hiraṅyakaśipu, having just been slain by Narasiha in the typical fashion of a lion. The Avatar has garlanded his own divine form with the demon’s bloody entrails. Narasiha roars in victory. Standing before the Lord is the devotee Prahlāda, the abused and tortured son of the demon, his eyes now filled with tears of love, as he lifts up a flower garland to honor his deliverer.

nrsimha-painting

The jury is hearing a lawsuit against ISKCON, which stands accused of “brainwashing” an underage girl who had sought refuge in the Krishna consciousness movement from her own parents. The wayward daughter was returned to her parents, a lawsuit had been filed, and the jury has heard “cult experts” testify about the “mind-control techniques” used by ISKCON.

So the standard ISKCON painting of Narasiṁhadeva is displayed to the jury. Its members are informed that, by aid of this picture, the run-away daughter had been brainwashed into believing that were she to abandon Krishna consciousness or to rejoin normal society—as Orange County, California, defines “normal”—Narasiṁha would deal with her as he dealt with Hiraṅyakaśipu.

It is true that we revere Narasiṁhadeva. It is true that Śrīla Prabhupāda established, as part of ISKCON’s standard liturgy, congregational prayers to Lord Narasiṁha to form the coda of every āratī ceremony. It is true that he stipulated that a painting of Narasiṁha be placed upon every altar.

But what is the real meaning of this devotion?  “Cult experts” or reclaimed teenage run-aways may not offer reliable testimony.

Let me here submit the expert testimony of Prabhupāda in this matter. In particular, let’s consider his comments on the imposing Upaniṣad-like prayer offered to Narasiṁhadeva by Prahlāda in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 5.18.8.

oṁ namo bhagavate narasiṁhāya namas tejas-tejase āvir-āvirbhava vajra-nakha vajra-daṁṣṭra karmāśayān randhaya randhaya tamo grasa grasa oṁ svāhā; abhayam abhayam ātmani bhūyiṣṭhā oṁ kṣraum.

Here, to begin with, the sheer power of Narasiṁhadeva is emphasized both semantically (through meaning) and syntactically (through the profuse employment of repetition). Thus, repetition is used to address Narasiṁha as the power behind all power (tejaḥ-tejase); repetition is used again to implore him to appear (āvi-āvirbhava). When Narasiṁha appears, his superpower is concretely manifest in his leonine features, for he is one whose claws and fangs are hard like lightening bolts or diamonds (vajranakha vajradaṁṣṭra).

Then he is implored—here repetition expresses strong feeling—to use that power to annihilate (randhaya randhaya) our deepest longings to enjoy in this world (karmāśayān) and to devour or swallow up (grasa grasa) our darkness or ignorance (tama). To do this, Narasiàha is entreated to appear (bhūyiṣṭhā) specifically within us—within our hearts or minds (ātmani)— thereby blessing us with total freedom from all fear (abhayam abhayam).

Here is Prabhupāda’s translation:

I offer my respectful obeisances unto Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva, the source of all power. O my Lord who possesses nails and teeth just like thunderbolts, kindly vanquish our demonlike desires for fruitive activity in this material world. Please appear in our hearts and drive away our ignorance so that by Your mercy we may become fearless in the struggle for existence in this material world.

Let’s look at Prabhupāda’s rendering of the compound word karmāśayān. Karma denotes actions performed out of a desire to enjoy the fruits; these are the acts that produce repeated birth in the material world. Āśaya means the disposition of the mind or heart, and here it indicates one’s deepest longings and hopes. Karmāśayān then means the illusory but deeply rooted expectation that we can find happiness or satisfaction in this world.

Prabhupāda goes further. In the synonyms he rendered karmāśayān as “demoniac desires to be happy by material activities” and in the translation as “our demonlike desires for fruitive activity in this material world.”

In the commentary to this verse, its becomes clear why Prabhupāda calls these desires “demoniac” or “demonlike:”

Every living being within this material world has a strong desire to enjoy matter to his fullest satisfaction. For this purpose, the conditioned soul must accept one body after another, and thus his strongly fixed fruitive desires continue. One cannot stop the repetition of birth and death without being completely desireless. . . . . Unless one is completely freed of all material desires, which are caused by the dense darkness of ignorance, one cannot fully engage in the devotional service of the Lord. Therefore we should always offer our prayers to Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva, who killed Hiraṅyakaśipu, the personification of material desire. Hiraṅya means “gold,” and kaśipu means “a soft cushion or bed.” Materialistic persons always desire to make the body comfortable, and for this they require huge amounts of gold. Thus Hiraṅyakaśipu was the perfect representative of materialistic life. He was therefore the cause of great disturbance to the topmost devotee, Prahlāda Mahārāja, until Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva killed him. Any devotee aspiring to be free of material desires should offer his respectful prayers to Nṛsiṁhadeva as Prahlāda Mahārāja did in this verse.

In other words, our own deep-rooted longings for pleasure in the world form a complex which is a kind of Hiraṅyakaśipu in our own hearts. Therefore, our daily prayer to Narasiṁhadeva is a request for him to enter into our hearts and destroy our own hiraṅyakaśipu-like desires to that plunge us into competitive sense gratification as we try to further our own god-project in this world.

In his comment to the next verse, Prabhupāda continues this line of thought:

Therefore we should pray to Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva to sit in our hearts. We should pray, bahir nṛsiṁo hṛdaye nṛsiṁha: “Let Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva sit in the core of my heart, killing all my bad propensities. Let my mind become clean so that I may peacefully worship the Lord and bring peace to the entire world.”

All followers of Śrīla Prabhupāda will immediately recognize the words bahir nṛsiṁo hṛdaye nṛsiṁha. They form part of the daily prayers I’ve already noted. This is the simple translation: “Nṛsiṁha is outside; Nṛsiṁha is in the heart.” The full import, however, is given by Prabhupāda. When we sing those simple words, we invite Narasiṁha into our hearts to destroy all our “bad propensities.” When we do this for ourselves, then we will be able to help Narasiṁha to be manifest outside too.

The world will not become peaceful and clean outside unless we are able to become pure and peaceful inside.

This fact explains why the world is perpetually tormented by war and conflict, even though no one professes to want it. And this fact explains why the internal purification is necessary to any successful ecological restoration of the earth.

Now we have the full purport to Pogo’s famous mantra:

pogo-2

Let me note one problem: When we try to purify our minds and hearts, we soon discover that it is not at all easy. Most of us quickly become discouraged and give up. Our bad propensities turn out to be far more powerful than we are. In fact, they are like the demon Hiraṅyakaśipu.

Although we cannot destroy him, Narasiṁhadeva can. We need help. That is why we are well advised to follow Prabhupāda’s advice, and, like Prahlāda, ask him to appear in our hearts.

We need Narasiṁhadeva. The entire world needs him. Particularly Orange County, California. And all the Orange Counties everywhere.

Narasiṁha Eye Candy: A Gallery

narasimha-1-badamiCave temple of Badami

narasimha-2-sri-katjir-narashimma-perumalSri Katjir Narashimma Perumal

narasimha-3-chennakesava-temple-beluChennakesava Temple, Belu

narasimha-4-watercolorOpaque watercolor and gold on paper. Himachal Pradesh, Nurpur

narasimha-16-mayapurISKCON Mayapur, West Bengal

narasimha-5-mayapur-floodNarasiṁhadeva being bathed by the Gagā, ISKCON Mayapur


narasimha-6-bhaktapurBhaktapur

narasimha-7-banteay-sreiNarasiṁhadeva in Cambodia

narasimha-8-germany-silaNarasiṁha śilā

narasimha-silaNarasiṁha śilā

narasimha-9-yogaYoga Narasiṁha

narasimha-10-jwala-narasimha-ahobilamJwala Narasiṁha in Ahobilam

narasimha-12-jwala-narasimha-2-ahobilamNarasiṁha emerging from the pillar. Jwala Narasiṁha, Ahobilam

narasimha-11-belur-temple-karnatakaBelur Temple, Karnataka

narasimha-13-germanyNarasiṁhadeva in ISKCON Germany

narasimha-14-jagannatha-temple-nijigada-khandapadaJagannātha Temple, Nijigada Khandapada

narasimha-15-philadelphiaJagannātha in Narasiṁha mask, ISKCON Philadelphia

narasimha-photoPhoto given to me by H.H. Śrīdhar Swami, a Narasiṁha bhakta.

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