Category Archives: Out of the Vault

Lord Caitanya and the Renaissance of Devotion, Part 2

Kṛṣṇa’s appearance as Lord Caitanya is really Kṛṣṇa’s own tribute and testament to the overwhelming attractiveness of pure devotional service and, especially, of His pure devotee. Moreover, when Kṛṣṇa assumes the features of His own greatest devotee, He has, in fact, a particular devotee in mind: His highest and most intimate devotee. Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī.

You may have seen paintings that depict Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa together; Lord Kṛṣṇa appears as a beautiful young man with a dark-blue complexion that glows like a newly formed rain cloud illuminated within by lightning. Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī is an equally beautiful young girl; Her complexion is lustrous like molten gold. Kṛṣṇa plays on His flute, and Rādhārāṇī, Her hand resting lightly on Kṛṣṇa’s shoulder, listens in enchantment. It is clear from Their posture and from the way They glance at each other that They are deeply in love.

Westerners often misunderstand Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. An earlier, puritanical generation was appalled at the notion that God should have a consort and enter into a conjugal relationship. Nowadays, one encounters people from a younger generation who are very much “into” sex and are delighted to think that God is too. Both groups radically misunderstand Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa, because both share in a common error: that the relationship between Rādhārāṇī and Kṛṣṇa is like a mundane sexual relationship.

Male and female and the attraction between them are found in this world only because sexual polarity and attraction exist originally in God, in Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa. As above, so here below. But there is a difference also. Worldly sexual relationships are merely perverted reflections of the original and transcendental conjugal relationship between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa, which is pure and spiritual and devoid of any tinge of lust. As long as Our materially besmirched minds are conditioned by worldly desire, we are unable to conceive of the immaculate love between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. We project our own unwholesome relationships and unholy loves onto God. This is surely a mistake. A person can understand the conjugal love of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa as it is only if he himself becomes free from lust. Lord Caitanya was able to make an unprecedented disclosure of the confidential relationship between Rādhārāṇī and Kṛṣṇa because He also taught the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa, which destroys lust and other material impurities with unrivaled efficacy.

We can understand the position of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī by means of the ideas of “potency” (śakti) and the “potent” (śaktimān), that is, of power or energy, on the one hand, and of the possessor of the power, the energetic source, on the other. To use an illustration, fire is the potent, and heat and light are the fire’s potency. But the supremely potent, the ultimate source of all energies, is Kṛṣṇa; everything else, material or spiritual, is His potency, emanating from Him as heat and light emanate from a fire. (Heat and light are potency in relation to the potent fire; fire, potency in relation to the potent sun; the sun, potency in relation to Kṛṣṇa, the supremely potent.) The entire content of what is can be exhaustively described as Kṛṣṇa and His energies.

Three of Kṛṣṇa’s multitudinous potencies are prominent. One of them manifests the whole material world; another, the innumerable spiritual souls. The third—called the internal potency—manifests the transcendental kingdom of God. This internal potency has three further subdivisions. By one of these transcendental potencies, Kṛṣṇa maintains His existence and that of the eternal kingdom of God; by another, He knows Himself and causes others to know Him. And by the third internal potency He enjoys transcendental bliss and causes His devotees to feel bliss.

This internal potency of bliss, called hlādinīśakti, is Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. As the embodiment of Kṛṣṇa’s transcendental pleasure-giving potency, Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī is Kṛṣṇa’s most perfect devotee; She lives only for satisfying Him with Her pure devotional love. All devotional service falls under the auspices of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, and only by Her mercy and care are the devotees able to please Her beloved Kṛṣṇa. She is the ideal devotee, the exemplar of unconditioned love.

Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā are simultaneously one and yet different, just as a fire and its light are one and yet different at the same time. Thus, although Rādhārāṇī and Kṛṣṇa are one in Their identity, They have separated Themselves eternally. Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa together exemplify the simultaneous oneness and difference of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and His energy, constituting the whole of the Absolute Truth. Thus they illustrate the most profound metaphysical principle.

Rādhārāṇī and Kṛṣṇa show that the ultimate nature of God contains internal varieties, and Their endless reciprocation of love is the basis of an internal transcendental dynamic by which Kṛṣṇa is eternally increasing in beauty and bliss. Although Rādhā has no desire for her own enjoyment, when She sees Kṛṣṇa, Her joy increases without bound. Because Her joy increases, Her sweetness and beauty also increase. When Kṛṣṇa sees Rādhā becoming more and more beautiful, His joy also becomes greater, making His beauty and His sweetness grow. When Rādhā sees that She has pleased Kṛṣṇa, She becomes overjoyed, and as Her joy multiplies, She becomes even more beautiful and sweet. This again increases Kṛṣṇa’s own joy, beauty, and sweetness. . . . And so the reciprocation goes on and on, without limit or end.

The name Kṛṣṇa means “all-attractive,” and knowing the reciprocation of ever-increasing love between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa allows us to appreciate how attractive God is—much more attractive than anything in this world. When God is misconceived as static and without variegatedness, it makes the material world seem more interesting and alluring by comparison. Just this sort of static conception was borrowed by Christian philosophers from Aristotle and enshrined in medieval theology; and this is one reason why the Renaissance turned to the material world for a sense of promise, adventure, and expanding possibilities. For God was philosophically understood as actus purus, which meant that He was everything that He could ever be; He was entirely static, a kind of crystalized, frozen perfection.

It was thought that if God possesses the fullness of infinite perfection, then the divine perfection would be at an absolute maximum and could not increase. But Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja says that although God is at the fullness of perfection, He still does increase. The apparent paradox may be easier to accept if you consider a similar “paradox” discovered by modern mathematicians in their investigation of the properties of infinite sets. Let us consider, for example, a hotel with infinite rooms, all of which are occupied. Although the hotel is full, you can always add more guests—in fact, an infinite number of guests. Let us imagine that the desk clerk wants to check in a new guest. He blows a whistle, and all the doors open. The occupant of room 1 moves to room 2, of 2 to room 3, . . . and so on, ad infinitum. The new guest enters the now-empty room 1. Similarly, even though an infinite number of guests check out of the hotel, it will retain full occupancy. The Īśopaniṣad makes a similar point about the Supreme Personality of Godhead: He is so complete that even though countless energies emanate from Him, He remains complete and wholly undiminished. And although Kṛṣṇa is full and complete, yet, through His loving reciprocation with Rādhā, He eternally increases without limit.

Lord Caitanya also embodies another phase in the transcendental psychology of the loving reciprocation between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. We have already seen how Kṛṣṇa is ceaselessly fascinated and attracted by Rādhā. He finds Her love for Him equally amazing. Its selfless purity and its intensity fill Him with wonder. Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja tells us that Kṛṣṇa thinks to Himself, “Whatever pleasure I get from tasting My love for Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, She tastes ten million times more than Me by Her love.” Kṛṣṇa is the supreme enjoyer, but He realizes that Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, by Her love for Him, enjoys even more bliss than He does. Thus Kṛṣṇa becomes eager to experience for Himself the flavor of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī’s love for Him.

Kṛṣṇa’s beauty and sweetness are so limitless that they attract the whole universe. Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja says: “The beauty of Kṛṣṇa has one natural strength: it thrills the hearts of all men and women, beginning with Lord Kṛṣṇa Himself. All minds are attracted by hearing his sweet voice and flute, or by seeing His beauty. Even Lord Kṛṣṇa Himself makes efforts to taste that sweetness.” But the one who relishes Kṛṣṇa’s beauty and sweetness the most is Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. Her immaculate love is like a flawless mirror, and in that mirror Kṛṣṇa’s own beauty and sweetness shine with ever greater brightness. Thus Kṛṣṇa desires to experience His own attractiveness in the way that Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī does.

For these reasons, then, Kṛṣṇa desires to take the position of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. That desire is eternally fulfilled in the person of Lord Caitanya. In His form as Lord Caitanya, Kṛṣṇa assumes the golden complexion and the devotional feelings of Rādhā, and tastes for Himself the unlimited bliss of devotional service.

Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja sets down two verses in which he summarizes the nature of Lord Caitanya: “The loving affairs of Śrī Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are transcendental manifestations of the Lord’s internal pleasure-giving potency. Although Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are one in Their identity, They separated Themselves eternally. Now these two transcendental identities have again united in the form of Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya. I bow down to Him, who has manifested Himself with the sentiment and complexion of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī although He is Kṛṣṇa Himself. Desiring to understand the glory of Rādhārāṇī’s love, the wonderful qualities in Him that She alone relishes through Her love, and the happiness She feels when She realizes the sweetness of His love, the Supreme Lord Hari, richly endowed with Her emotions, appeared from the womb of Śrīmatī Śacīdevī, as the moon appeared from the ocean.”

The three transcendental personalities of Rādhā, Kṛṣṇa, and Caitanya together manifest the eternal dialectics of divine love, the timeless dynamics of the ever-expanding ocean of transcendental bliss. Lord Caitanya descended to flood the world with that ocean of love by distributing to everyone the chanting of the names of God. Simply by chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa, anyone can enter into that limitless ocean of the nectar of devotion.

Lord Caitanya inaugurated a bhakti renaissance and turned people’s vision to God at the same time that the Renaissance in Europe turned people’s vision to man and the world. Men like da Vinci, fascinated by the marvelous and cunning complexities of material nature, began to delve into her secrets with an insatiable curiosity and were rewarded with discovery. At the same time, as if in counterbalance, Lord Caitanya, through the renaissance of bhakti, gave to the world an unprecedented view into the inner dynamics of infinite love in the all-attractive Supreme Personality of Godhead. Just as men of the Renaissance tried to open up the world and unlock the secrets of nature, Lord Caitanya and His associates opened up the kingdom of God and unlocked the secrets of love of God.

To the people of the Renaissance, the world and man seemed imbued with limitless possibility and promise. Western civilization to the present day has been following up on that vision, and it becomes more and more apparent that the world and man have not lived up to their promise. The Renaissance shift of vision from God to man and matter has cut people off from any transcendent source of meaning and value, and the resultant relativism and nihilism—the ripened fruit of the Renaissance—have released demonic energies that have devastated the earth in our time. And there is more to come.

Therefore, Lord Caitanya’s appearance was most timely. The civilization born in Europe during the Renaissance has grown to straddle the earth. But there has been a most fortunate counterflux, as the saìkértana movement of Lord Caitanya has also spread over the globe, in fulfillment of Lord Caitanya’s own prophecy. By showing how Kṛṣṇa is supremely loving and all-attractive, and by making Kṛṣṇa easily accessible through the chanting of His names. Lord Caitanya has made it possible for us to shift our vision back to God once more. This is necessary. Man and the world cannot answer to the demand we have placed upon them. Only Kṛṣṇa and His transcendental kingdom, where He eternally revels in pastimes of love, can do that. This alone is the realm that is rich with infinite promise, beckoning to us with limitless possibilities.

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My Encounter With the Art of Perfection

This article originally appeared in Back to Godhead magazine in 1985.

By the time I encountered the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement. I was so eager to transcend material existence that I was willing to renounce practically everything for the sake of liberation. So convinced was I that pain and suffering were of the essence of this life that I did not desire to reserve any attachment, even to the highest and best part of it.

And to me, that highest and best was exemplified in art and literature—in those timeless artifacts, those “monuments,” as the poet Yeats beautifully called them, “of unaging intellect.” And I myself had since adolescence sought transcendence in the role of the artist. I had become captivated by a certain image of the artist, an image presented with consummate lyricism by James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: a “fabulous artificer . . . forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being.”

A magus turning matter into spirit, the artist transmutes the tacky, mortal stuff of this life into a new “unaging,” “imperishable” creation; in so doing, he redeems his existence from time and change. Certainly this redemptive drive toward the eternal and immutable is the deepest motive of art. As such, the artistic impulse is religious. The problem is that it fails. It is bad religion.

Consider this typical example of the “eternizing theme” from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade
When in eternal lines to Time thou growest.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The poet refers to his verse as eternal—as eternal as Time itself—yet in the final couplet a more deflated view prevails: the verse can at best last no longer than mankind. And while the poet boldly asserts that his verse rescues his subject from time and death, preserving him in eternal youth, we recognize a rhetorical fiction, a hyperbole. Centuries ago that fair youth moldered in his grave and is now at most a sparse handful of dust. Nothing has really been saved from time and death: not the poet, not his subject, not his art.

The promise of art is illusory. Art cannot save us, no matter how beautiful and well wrought its objects may be. They are, essentially, fictions. At best, art may palliate the pains of life, but even in this it dangerously misleads. They say that during the Holocaust, Jews were marched toward gas chambers while an orchestra beguiled them with Mozart and Brahms. Aesthetic enjoyment is like an anodyne that relieves the symptoms of a disease. Given the illusion of health, we can ignore our sickness, and eventually it destroys us.

The spell of art is hard to break once you have fallen under it, but I became at last disenchanted. Although I was still deeply attracted by great art and literature and still strongly felt the allure of the artistic vocation, I knew neither the enjoyment nor the creation of art could save me from death, I began to study spiritual writings, and eventually I became sure of at least this much: that material life is essentially suffering, that suffering is caused by our desires, and that the cure for suffering lies in the uprooting of our desires. I was willing, therefore, to give up everything, from the gross satisfaction of animal appetites to the refined pleasures of art and its creation. I set out on my own to eradicate my desires. I failed utterly.

I failed because my idea of renunciation was rudimentary, incomplete. I did not actually understand renunciation, in principle or in practice. Finally, however, I was enlightened in this matter by the devotees of Kṛṣṇa. As they explained it, the Kṛṣṇa conscious method of renunciation was both sensible and practical. And, as I soon discovered, it was remarkably efficacious. Moreover—and this astonished me completely—it was joyful through and through. It was not negation but fulfillment. And whatever I gave up on the material platform, I got back a thousandfold on the spiritual. In my case, this was most immediately evident with reference to literary art.

I had gleaned my previous ideas of renunciation from the teachings of various impersonalists, those mystics who think that ultimate truth is wholly devoid of names, forms, attributes, activities, and relations and that to characterize it properly we must resort to silence and negation. They hold that in the liberated state the knower, the known, and the act of knowing coalesce to absolute unity and that to enter that state we must denude ourselves of all personality and individuality and turn away from all sensory and intellectual experience. This bleak and daunting prospect can appeal only to the most burned-out victims of time, and it has sent many seekers back to material life in frustration.

But Rūpa Gosvāmī, a great authority on devotional service, calls this impersonal sort of renunciation phalgu-vairāgya, “incomplete renunciation.” It is incomplete because the realization of the supreme on which it is based is incomplete. By rejecting material qualities, names, forms, activities, and relations, the impersonalists have reached but the outer precincts of divinity, which they report to be an endless, undifferentiated spiritual effulgence. But they do not know that this effulgence conceals a still higher region of transcendence, where the Supreme Personality of Godhead Kṛṣṇa resides. In this topmost abode, hidden in the heart of the infinite ocean of light, Kṛṣṇa exhibits His most beautiful transcendental form and His unsurpassable personal qualities as He plays out endless exchanges of love with His pure devotees. Because the impersonalists have unfortunately not yet realized these variegated positive features of transcendence, they must be content with mere negation of the material.

When there is complete realization of the supreme, however, one enters the luminous realm of devotional service. Here, the senses and mind of the devotee become decontaminated from all material taint by complete absorption in the active service of their transcendental object, Kṛṣṇa. In this way there is the awakening of full spiritual existence, and material existence automatically ceases. Accordingly, the devotee does not reject mind and senses, desire and activities, but he restores them to their original purity through the devotional activities of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Because the devotee focuses his full attention on the supremely attractive forms and pastimes of Kṛṣṇa, he quite naturally loses his interest in all the attractions of this world. In comparison with Kṛṣṇa and His society, those attractions undergo fatal devaluation.

The foremost book dedicated wholly to Kṛṣṇa is the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is filled with accounts of the marvelous activities the Lord performs during His various descents into this world. It narrates His eternal, joyful pastimes in His supreme abode, and it describes in detail how he dwells as Supersoul within our hearts. With scientific precision, Śrīmad Bhāgavatam tells how Kṛṣṇa again and again brings forth and maintains and winds up the creation. It tells of the great adventures of His devotees throughout the universe. And it instructs us in the potent practices of bhakti-yoga, by which we can regain our transcendental organs of perception and once again see Kṛṣṇa always, within everything and beyond everything. The works comprising India’s vast spiritual literature are called the Vedic literature, and the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is “the ripened fruit of the Vedic tree of knowledge.” Yet this work was hardly known outside of India until His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, my spiritual master, began his hugely successful project of translating it and distributing it all over the world.

The first time I read Śrīmad Bhāgavatam was one of the high points of my life. In those days, we had only the three russet volumes Śrīla Prabhupāda had written and published in India and brought with him to America. But these books—crudely printed, badly bound, riddled with typos—were the greatest literature I had ever encountered. I, who had worshiped so long at the shrine of the Bard, now astounded myself by thinking, “This is greater than Shakespeare!” I read with full appreciation that one of Kṛṣṇa‘s names is Uttamaśloka, or “He who is praised by immortal verse.” I delved deeper and deeper into the Bhāgavatam, endlessly fascinated, and discovered one day that I had in the process renounced the literature of this world.

Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is in a class all its own, and once you have acquired a taste for it, all mundane literature seems stale and flat. Nor do you tire of the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. As a rule, the higher the quality of a literary work, the more it bears rereading. A paperback thriller is notably unthrilling on second reading; Hamlet or King Lear remain satisfying after many revisits. Still, there are limits, and even the most ardent Shakespearean requires periodic relief. But you can pick up Bhāgavatam every day and find it inexhaustible; with each rereading it increases in interest. Because Bhāgavatam is simply not a product of this world, it has the ever-fresh quality that is the hallmark of spirit.

All along I had really wanted Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. It seemed to me that all literary yearnings for the eternal unconsciously seek that crest-jewel of books. And now I had found it. So I did not, after all, have to give up my attraction to literature; I had only to purify it. Once purified, my desire was satisfied beyond my greatest expectation.

In the same way, my desire to write was also fulfilled. In becoming Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciple, I had become part of a distinctively literary spiritual tradition. The historical line of spiritual masters to which Prabhupāda belongs is named the Brahmā-sampradāya, after its first member, the cosmic engineer. Lord Brahmā. At the beginning of creation Brahmā was impregnated with Vedic knowledge by Kṛṣṇa, and Brahmā then arranged for this knowledge to be passed down carefully from generation to generation through an unbroken chain of masters. Lord Brahmā is often depicted with a book in his hand, signifying his possession of Vedic knowledge, and his sampradāya, preserving its founder’s characteristic, is particularly learned. Its members are so distinguished for literary production that it is known as “the sampradāya of the book.” Thus, Śrīla Prabhupāda himself made books the basis of his preaching effort, and he gave the world more than sixty volumes of spiritual writings.

Not long after I moved into the temple, I heard these instructions from Śrīla Prabhupāda, on tape from a lecture in Los Angeles: “Every one of you, what is your realization? You write your realization—what you have realized about Kṛṣṇa. That is required. It is not passive; always you should be active. Whenever you find time, write. Never mind—two lines, four lines, but you write your realizations. Śravaam, kīrtanam—writing or offering prayers, glories—this is one of the functions of a Vaiṣṇava [devotee]. You are hearing, but you have to write also. Then, writing means smaraam—remembering what you have heard from your spiritual master.” Thus, writing automatically involves a devotee in three prominent aspects of devotional service: hearing and chanting about Kṛṣṇa and remembering Him [śravaam, kīrtanam, and smaraam.] And in a letter to a disciple, Prabhupāda said: “All students should be encouraged to write some article after reading the Bhagavad-gītā, Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, and Teachings of Lord Caitanya. They should realize the information, and they must present their assimilation in their own words. Otherwise, how can they become preachers?”

Moreover, Prabhupāda specifically established Back to Godhead magazine in America to provide his disciples with an outlet for their writings. So I had abundant encouragement. And I had inexhaustible material. There was nothing else to do but write.

Śrīmad Bhāgavatam recounts the occasion when the great sage Nārada Muni had cause to instruct his disciple Vyāsadeva concerning the principles of devotional service. Nārada says: “O brāhmana Vyāsadeva, it is decided by the learned that the best remedial measure for removing all troubles and miseries is to dedicate one’s activities to the service of the Supreme Lord Personality of Godhead, Śrī Kṛṣṇa. O good soul, does not a thing, applied therapeutically, cure a disease which was caused by the very same thing? Thus when all a man’s activities are dedicated to the service of the Lord, those very activities which caused his perpetual bondage become the destroyer of the tree of work.” (Italics added.)

My own experience confirms these words of Nārada Muni. Certainly my intense desire to enjoy and create fine literature had bound me tightly to this world. But when I became a devotee, the very desire that had caused my bondage, when dovetailed in the service of Kṛṣṇa, produced freedom. I experienced early the purifying, liberating effect of writing in Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

Writing, for me, demands great concentration. In practically no other circumstances am I compelled to meditate so intensely on Kṛṣṇa and His teachings; in so doing I associate with Kṛṣṇa and by that association become purified. Moreover, the effort to write clearly is the effort to understand clearly. When I see my words out there, all detached on the page, it is as if they stand exposed for judgment. And I hasten to revise and revise and revise again. In reworking and refining my writing, I feel I am being reworked and refined. In this way, writing keeps me fixed in the refiner’s fire of Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

I said earlier that the ambition to attain the eternal and immutable is the deepest motive of art. In the case of Kṛṣṇa conscious art, this drive can realize its end. Kṛṣṇa is eternal, and whatever comes into contact with Him attains that same eternal nature. The literary artist who dedicates his craft fully to the service of Kṛṣṇa, then, really does transmute matter into spirit, and he becomes redeemed fully from time and change. His work may be more or less expert in the world’s judgment, but that matters not at all. As Śrīla Prabhupāda noted in this connection, “If one is actually sincere in writing, all his ambitions will be fulfilled.”

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The following article was first published in Back to Godhead magazine in 1991.

Sometime in the 1730’s, a young Scottish philosopher tried, and failed, to find himself. David Hume reflected upon this experience in his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739). The passage is much quoted and anthologized. I encountered it frequently as an undergraduate philosophy major, for my teachers regarded it as a watershed in Western philosophy. They revered David Hume—progenitor of the hard-nosed, no-nonsense style of empiricism they professed—and they amused their classes by reproducing in a Scottish burr a famous remark by the great philosopher’s mother: “Oor Davie’s a fine, good-natured crater, but uncommon wake-minded.”

Well, sons are sometimes hard on mothers, too. That was why I had the afternoon last fall to take my two grandsons in a search for the self, some 260 years after Davie had looked in vain. This Saturday my harried daughter needed a break, so my wife and I were at her house trying to load Paramesvara (age five), Bhaktivinoda (three and a half), and all their weekend gear into our car. In the midst of a great deal of coming and going, Paramesvara and I found ourselves at one point alone together in the car. We chatted. I was struck once more by how bright this lanky, tow-headed boy was, and I wondered how much of the philosophy of Krishna consciousness he understood. I decided to begin with what Srila Prabhupada called the “first lesson.”

Making sure I had his attention, I said, “Paramesvara, do you know you’re not your body?”

“I’m not?” he exclaimed in amazement. He looked at me expectantly, awaiting explanation.

“That’s right. You’re not. You’re the soul, the spirit soul.”

He knew plenty of Krishna stories, but, it seemed, no philosophy. Was he too young? His astonishment told me he was ready—my statement didn’t just go past him or bewilder him. Yet how could I get him to understand the soul? I did not want him simply reciting stock, catechistic responses that had no meaning for him.

Before I could go any further we were interrupted: “Jaga! Jaga! Help me!”

This was Bhaktivinoda, stranded on the sidewalk with a spill of paraphernalia, calling his older brother, whose in-house name is “Jaga” or “Jaga-bear.” (I can’t tell you why.) After we had packed the trunk and settled back-seat territorial disputes, Jaga went back inside to look for the trip snack-bag, leaving me alone with Bhaktivinoda, or, conveniently, “T-Node.” T-Node is a rolly-polly kind of kid with a pale, circular face that’s surrounded by a sunburst of curly hair so blonde it’s nearly white. A toddler’s lisp overlays his low, gravelly voice.

I had him alone: How would someone this young respond? Would he be interested at all?

“T-Node,” I asked in a serious voice, “do you know you’re not your body?”

“I’m not?” he exclaimed at once, his eyes wide with astonishment. He looked up at me, waiting.

“No, you’re not. When Jaga comes back I’ll explain it.” I began making plans.

My wife agreed to drive, and by the time we made the turnpike I was ready. I had remembered how Srila Prabhupada had taught some schoolchildren and decided to try it.

I twisted around to face the boys in the back seat. “Now I’ll show you that you’re not your body. First stick your pointing finger out straight, like this. OK? Good. Now just do what I tell you. Ready?”

They were; they were into it.

“Now: point to your nose!” I pointed to my nose, Jaga to his, T-Node to his.

“Now point to your belly!” We all did. I led them through a sequence: elbow, eye, foot, knee, chest …

(Once they got going I stopped pointing.) I hammed it up a bit and gradually gained speed until I reached the punchline: “Now point to your self!” Consternation. Pointing fingers waved about aimlessly, eyebrows knit together in bafflement. They laughed … “What? What?” Jaga said, his finger looping around like a bottled-up fly.

“See!” I said. “You can’t point to yourself. That’s because you are not your body! You’re the soul.”

T-Node was thunderstruck; he had clearly undergone an intellectual breakthrough. His face was lit up with the wonder of discovery.

“Do it again! Do it again!” T-Node begged. We went through the sequence a few times, and each time it worked to both boys’ satisfaction. “I’m not my body,” I heard T-Node saying to himself. “I am the soul.” It seemed to sound right to him.

But I felt an unease, a mental chill, almost a presence. It was the ghost of David Hume. With suave, measured tones that nicely set off a hint of contempt, I heard the words of the Treatise announcing the position about to be demolished:

“There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self. …”

But where, Hume asks, could we get the idea of a self from? All real ideas are based on “impressions”—on sensations, passions, or emotions. We must be able to analyze or dissect ideas down to show ultimately the impressions that produced them. If we cannot, then the so-called idea is meaningless. What impression, Hume asks, is responsible for the idea of a single, simple, enduring, changing self?

If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot therefore be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea.

Yet don’t we need a self to possess or unify all our particular impressions? Well, where is it?

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.

A person may attest that he perceives “something simple and continued, which he calls himself,” Hume says, “though I am certain there is no such principle in me.” Setting such “metaphysicians” aside, Hume affirms that humans “are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”

Haunted by Hume, I kept on conversing with the metaphysicians in the back seat while the Pennsylvania croplands poured away behind them. They were learning to discriminate between matter and spirit. I held a rubber ball in my hand and beat it with a fist.

“See? I can hit it over and over again—hard—and it never goes ‘Ow!’ It never cries. But if I hit you”—they bobbed away from my slow-motion punch—”you’ll feel it. You’ll cry. That’s because there is a soul—you—in your body. But there’s no soul in this ball.”

“This morning Jaga hit me and made me cry,” T-Node said.

“If you hit a cat or dog, it feels it,” Jaga quickly put in. “It is also a spirit soul.”

“Even ants or spiders,” I added.

T-Node looked down guiltily. He’s been known to step on ants on purpose.

How could Hume have missed himself? Was he being willfully obtuse? Imagine him conducting an inventory of his mental contents, like an auctioneer appraising the contents of an estate up for sale. He walks through each room, examining each object. Picking it up, setting it down. Looking for something in particular. “Is this myself? Is this? Is this?” After an exhaustive search, he reports—truthfully enough—that he didn’t find it.

But who is looking? Who is inspecting this memory, this joy, this love, this fear, this regret, this ambition, this or that train of thought? David, you could not find your self in all that because none of that, taken separately or all together, is your self. The self is not the seen but the seer, not the experience but the experiencer. You are not even David Hume, but rather the experiencer of being David Hume.

Teaching my grandsons had given me a new insight into the Treatise. Like T-Node and Jaga, David Hume had been playing the pointing game. T-Node and Jaga played by pointing to different parts of their bodies, while David played by pointing to different parts of his mind—the subtle body. I could take Davie through it point by point, running through the inventory of mental goods, until: “Point to your self!” And the indexical Human finger wavers, finding no object. “See!” I’d say. “You’re not your mind. You’re the spirit soul.”

For we are no more to be identified with our minds than with our bodies. The mind belongs to the category of the not-self as much as the body does. Both mind and body are material, the former being merely finer or subtler than the latter. Vedic seers know this, but Western philosophers have conflated the spiritual and the mental; “mind” and “soul” are synonymous. David Hume discovered in the Treatise that the mind was not the self, but he drew a false conclusion: there was no self, no soul, at all.

My grandsons were doing better:

“What happens if I attack the soul with ninja swords?”

“Nothing! It can’t be cut!”

“What happens if I drop a huge rock on it?”

“It can’t be smashed!”

“What happens if I put a blowtorch to it?”

“It can’t be burnt!”

“How can I kill the soul?”

“You can’t! You can’t kill the soul!”

They were good students. They made me wish I had Davie in my class along with them. I thought about that. Since the presence of such a great philosopher might intimidate me, I would want his mother along too. She sounded like a formidable woman, and she seemed to know her son.

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