Part II—Contented, Tormented, Demented: The Economy in Three Modes

Knowledge of the three modes (guṇatraya) proves to be fruitful on a variety of levels. The principles that offer insight into the working of individuals also illuminate the characteristics of entire cultures or civilizations. Prabhupāda demonstrates this application in a comment on the Gītā: “Modern civilization is considered to be advanced in the standard of the mode of passion. Formerly, the advanced condition was considered to be in the mode of goodness.”

Prabhupāda’s remark provides us with an illuminating and useful way to comprehend recent western history.

We can clearly recognize the shift from the standard of goodness to that of passion in the great historical transformation from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy—or “modernization” as it is called.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century was a watershed in the process, but neither the beginning nor the end of it. Industrialization has kept on going: Agriculture did not become fully industrialized until after World War II, when traditional family farms became replaced by huge “factory farms,” agri-businesses controlled by multinational corporations.

Reviewing Michael Pollan’s recent documentary “Food, Inc.” Andrew O’Hehir notes

We’ve got the fact that, as Pollan puts it, the production of food has changed more in the last 50 years than it did in the previous 10,000. With the massive application of fertilizers, pesticides and economies of scale after World War II, raising crops and animals for food ceased to be a rural lifestyle based on many small farmers and ranchers, and rapidly became a heavily mechanized (and lightly regulated) industry dominated by a handful of big companies who run on low-wage labor.

Most recently, computer technology has been transforming “white collar” occupations—including those of medicine and education—into factory-style assembly-line labor.

The rajoguṇa gospel of “progress” has converted nearly the whole world, and everyone worships at the feet of Economic Development.

Ten Commandments for Economic Development

What can we expect of all this progress? The answer is not in dispute: rajasas tu phalaṁ duḥkham. The fruit of the mode of passion is suffering.

Our refugees from the Wall Street storm, reflecting on their travail, call on the President to lead us away from a culture of greed and avarice, of “more is better,” in effect to lead us from passion to goodness. Yet the great government bail-out of financial firms seems mostly to have prompted an additional frenzy of greed.

Hand outs

In terms of our science, we recognize that modernity is a hypertrophy, a monstrous overdevelopment, of rajoguṇa and the predicted, inevitable outcome—misery—is arriving big time, on multiple fronts: the financial storm crashing around is just the leading edge of the mother of all hurricanes on the way: the global climate crisis.

The reactions to the misery engendered by rajoguṇa will be in the three modes also.  As often happens, Lewis and Cohan are at least attracted to sattvaguṇa, and the Lewis Family Farm, “devoted to the principles of organic sustainable agriculture” seems a laudable attempt to return to a purer, more sattvic way of life.

Unfortunately, he has some way to go. Those who know the science of the guṇas doubt that much will be gained by exchange of this:

BullExploiting the Bull Market for Money—Rajoguṇa

For this:

Bull 2Exploiting the Hereford Bull for Beef—Tamoguṇa

Knowledge of the three guṇas is greatly needed to help us deal effectively with our overwhelming crisis, the ever-growing global misery engendered by the hypertrophy of the mode of passion.

Whenever rajoguṇa yields its harvest of suffering and misery on which we feast, we undergo the typical reactions to such a diet—for instance, rage and its internalize form known as depression, sedation by low- or high-tech drugs, escape into illusions and delusions—such reactions convey us into tamoguṇa.

Yet there is also the chance that with a little help we can also elevate ourselves to goodness.

Prabhupāda asserts that we have choices.

Here in his account of struggles of the individual spiritual self (the ātmā) with the modes, Prabhupāda describes our options:

When a living entity comes in contact with the material creation, his eternal love for Kṛṣṇa is transformed into lust, in association with the mode of passion. Or, in other words, the sense of love of God becomes transformed into lust, as milk in contact with sour tamarind is transformed into yogurt. Then again, when lust is unsatisfied, it turns into wrath; wrath is transformed into illusion, and illusion continues the material existence. Therefore, lust is the greatest enemy of the living entity, and it is lust only which induces the pure living entity to remain entangled in the material world. Wrath is the manifestation of the mode of ignorance; these modes exhibit themselves as wrath and other corollaries. If, therefore, the mode of passion, instead of being degraded into the mode of ignorance, is elevated to the mode of goodness by the prescribed method of living and acting, then one can be saved from the degradation of wrath by spiritual attachment.

(The word “lust” here—kāma in Sanskrit—denotes the strong desire to enjoy the pleasures of the sense. Kāma is not limited to sexual desire, although sex, as Freud said, “is the prototype of all pleasure.”)

Most of us can see everywhere the increase in the effect of the mode of ignorance.  Mental disturbances proliferate all around us. In America, one out of four adults suffer in a given year from a diagnosable mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Look it up—or just turn on a television or take a walk through the city streets. . . . Based on a 2001 study, the World Health Organization predicted that by 2020 mental illness would become the second leading cause of death and disability in the world.

Politically, the increase in tamoguṇa can be seen in the rise of social or cultural rage, resentment, panic, and despair. The rant has become a favorite form of political discourse (check out “Rant of the Year”), with a concomitant rise of ideologically motivated violence.

The economy in the mode of ignorance is chronically depressed (and depressing), and prosperity turns out to be illusory, producing fortunes as insubstantial as the airy nothing of day-dreams, made only of “bubbles.” Livelihoods increasing depend on the black market or underground economy. Prisons, mental facilities, addiction recovery centers, and similar institutions that care for those overwhelmed by tamoguṇa become a vital element of the visible economy.

Although those committed to the culture and economy of rajoguṇa see and fear the increase of tamoguṇa, they do not know how to deal with it effectively. This is because their own solution to the problems caused by rajoguṇa is simply more rajoguṇa.

In dealing with mental illness, for example, it rarely occurs to them that if many people are disturbed it is because the conditions of their lives are in fact disturbing. If they should recognize this, they have no idea of how to deal with it; or if they do have some inkling, they think the solution “impracticable.” They rely on the mode of passion, and put their hopes in “big pharma.”

I remember well the first great oil shock that rocked the country in 1973. Many saw it as a harbinger of things to come, especially in light of a study published the previous year, which argued that in view of the earth’s finite resources, we were approaching The Limits to Growth. The book sold thirty million copies.

People began to give serious consideration to proposals that we should live in ways that had many features of what would be, in our terms, an economy in the mode of goodness: local self-sufficiency in food and energy (features of an agrarian economy), shift to a largely vegetarian diet, employ appropriate technology, and so on.

The idea of limits to growth is anathema to those in the mode of passion. I remember receiving several issues of a newsletter, put out by some consortium of large energy corporations, assailing the idea of limits to growth as sacrilege against Progress itself. Whatever problems human ingenuity creates, that same ingenuity solves. When the “cavemen” learned to control fire, and found the flames of their hearths filled their shelters with smoke, did they abandon fire? No! That is not the human way! They “advanced” by devising further technology—in this case, chimneys. The problems of technology will be solved by more technology.

Now that further technology threatens apocalyptic catastrophe produced global climatic changes, scientists are busy developing ingenious technological fixes. The cavemen now must erect a chimney on the earth. Well, not that, exactly.

Here’s one plan: We have already seen that erupting volcanoes produce global temperature drops by pouring vast amount of sun-blocking sulfur dioxide into the air. We engineer the same effect, thus counteracting the temperature increase from greenhouse gases. Imagine, then, an armada of 1,500 zeppelins hovering at 65,000 feet, each one studded with nozzles that continuously spew a mist of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Flexible hoses trail from each airships like strands of vermicelli from an uplifted fork; the sulfur dioxide aerosol is pumped aloft through these conduits from production plants on the ground at a rate of ten kilos per second. This process goes on 24/7, no end in sight.

Graeme Wood surveys a number of such breathtaking geo-engineering plans under development in his article “Moving Heaven and Earth” in the latest issue of The Atlantic.

Wood is concerned to emphasize the great risk such solutions pose. We are messing with our entire ecology, and there is a distinct danger of unforeseen consequences on a catastrophic scale. If we employ the sulfur dioxide or other sun-blocking schemes—because reduction of greenhouse gas emissions proves politically or economically unworkable—then those gases will continue to build up in the atmosphere. If, for any reason, one of these projects stops, then the accumulated atmospheric carbon could produce a sudden and drastic temperature rise, with calamitous results.

Wood notes that these schemes are considerably cheaper than the cost of sufficiently reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Estimates that geo-engineering could completely reverse human caused climate change for $100 billion—and some say for much less. Reducing emission will cost an estimated one trillion dollars, yearly.

The low cost of such schemes makes them more attractive. And, in fact, it brings some of them within the scope of unilateral action by even a poor nation—or of a single very rich individual. Those who worry about these things dread the emergence of a hypothetical “Greenfinger,” the environmental cognate of Goldfinger, the mega-villain of the James Bond sagas.

Wood, in fact, hopes that these geo-engineering solutions are so frightening and affordable that these very features may prompt—through sheer terror—a serious effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the possibility of geo-engineering would remain, lurking in the near shadows, poised to pounce like the monster in a horror movie, the price of our failure.

It is typical for those controlled by rajoguṇa to try to assuage the resulting misery by means of the very mode that produced it. At best, these efforts can no more than retard the fruition of misery, and the delay only amplifies the suffering when it arrives with tamoguṇa in its train, smothering the earth.

One thing is sure: We are soon to be instructed and entertained by some of the several dozen eco-disaster-horror-thriller novels and screenplays now filling up hard drives across the land. Greenfinger! Who could resist?

Wood’s overview of geo-engineering plans provides us with a textbook-worthy study of rajoguṇa in large scale action. Be very scared.

Under these circumstances it is encouraging to see a widespread increase in attraction for what is, in effect, the mode of goodness. Impelled by danger and dire need, Wordsworth’s “plain living and high thinking,” disappearing in his own time, awaits a revival.

Here the science of the modes has a major contribution to make: how to free the human heart from the control of rajas and tamas and situate it in sattva. Such an effort attacks our social, political, and environmental problems at their very root. This treatment of the disease of the heart, including “the prescribed method of living and acting,” is proven efficacious: Prabhupāda’s ISKCON may be seen as a kind of pilot program in this regard. Where the treatment has been properly applied, it has worked.

Where the treatment has failed of proper application, it should be implemented once more, with greater care. This is an urgent matter. In our global emergency, any who undertake a renewed and revivified effort to elevate themselves to goodness by the “proscribed methods” will bring inestimable benefit not only to themselves, but also to all humanity—more—to all living beings on earth.

The clock is ticking.


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Contented, Tormented, Demented—The Economy in Three Modes

“The Economy Is Still at the Brink,” warns Sandy Lewis and William Cohan in a full-page op-ed piece in the Sunday Times of June 7. With the coverage and mayhem of a shotgun blast, the authors let loose at the President’s remedial programs and advance their own remedies. Periodically the text balloons into sections of bold-faced, screaming, headline multi-sized fonts—the usual signal of a rant in progress. (A first for the staid and sober “paper of record?”) For example:

NYT balloon

The tone of the piece, reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets, is notable; the inquisitive reader may savor the authors’ secular jeremiad in its entirety here. Sandy Lewis is himself a confessed and pardoned Wall Street sinner. Now he is an organic farmer (“grass-fed beef” unfortunately included) in the Adirondacks. His co-author William Cohan, a seventeen-year Wall-street veteran turned journalist, has offered the nation his  tell-all account of gluttony at the Bear Stearns financial pig-trough in his narration of the foundering of that Titanic among investment banks, House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street. They have survived the shipwreck to tell us.

Shipwreck“The Storm Is Not Over…”

Of all the bullet-pointed proposals blasted at us, a short one struck me hardest:

Instead of promising the imminent return of good times, why isn’t Mr. Obama talking more about the importance of living within our means and not spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need? We used to be a frugal nation. The president should be talking about kicking our addictions to easy credit, to quick fixes and to a culture of more is better . . .  .

Gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s, cigarette boats, no-income mortgages and private jets should be relegated to the junk heaps of history, or better yet, put in a museum dedicated to never forgetting the greed and avarice that led us so far astray.
Its opening question distinguished as a graphical howl, this proposal strikes me as the most fundamental of all, as the most necessary, as the most radical, and for those reasons the most nearly impossible: Forswearing “greed and avarice”? Kicking our addiction to “a culture of more is better”?

These undertakings would uproot the very foundation of our American way of life; they demand a profound change of culture, of individual lifestyle and outlook.

Yet it is just this sort of remedial cultural transformation that Prabhupāda hoped to bring about in the world through his offerings of Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, calling the latter “a cultural presentation for the respiritualization of the entire human society.”

THE STORM indeed is a long way from over, yet so far as I can tell neither the traumatized survivors of Wall Street nor the President understand how to effect the necessary changes—change you really can believe in.

To anyone committed to bringing about a transformation in the iniquitous ways of this world’s misdirected civilization I recommend an ancient system as guide for this undertaking. The system is a science, containing, like any science, both theory and practice. By theory I mean an organized set of categories that illuminate the workings of the world, and by practice I mean the application of the theory to the world so as to bring about desired changes. Through science we can both understand how things are working and use our understanding to predict and control the course of events.

The scientific knowledge I’m concerned with has been developed in India among followers of the Vedas, and it is basic enough to be common to nearly all the various traditions of knowledge (vidyā) and application (yoga).

A concise and accessible exposition of this science can be found in the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā, which concerns itself with the “three modes of material nature” (guṇa traya), distinguishing each category from the others and the triad of guṇas from the state of transcendence (nirguṇa).

Over the ages, the human race has embraced an extraordinary diversity of systems of thought. As social beings, we absorb a cultural world-view practically with our mother’s milk, and as we mature that view is enriched by friends and relatives, by teachers and other guides. We look at the world around us through the lenses so provided.

It has been said that every “seeing” is really a “seeing as,” that our perceptions of the world come to us to a degree already processed and interpreted, pre-consciously shaped by our biological, social, and historically conditioned mind and senses.

If you spend time studying philosophies and ideologies—as I did once—you’ll find that each makes it possible to comprehend reality as a unified, intelligible whole, and eventually you will be able to mentally browse through a succession of realities as comprehended, say, by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Spinoza, by Hegel, Marx, and Whitehead, and so on.  In a sense, each of these systematic thinkers lives in a different world. Or each one lights up the given world—the inaccessible “thing-in-itself”?—in a certain idiosyncratic way, a way that may turn out to be quite satisfying or fruitful for some purpose or other. And each leaves parts in shadows, too: ignored or unexplained.

When I began to absorb the teachings of the Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and viewed the world through their categories of thought, the world became illuminated in a new, fascinating, and extremely useful way. Not only did my study transform the way I saw the world: it transformed me. Bhagavad-gītā calls this phenomenon jñāna cakṣuṣaḥ, becoming endowed with eyes of knowledge.

An important element of that knowledge is seeing nature (prakṛti) working according to three guṇas.

The dictionary’s first definition of guṇa is “cord” or “strand.” Think of prakṛti as a rope made of three cords (guṇas) plaited or twisted together. As one of the constituent features of nature, guṇa denotes a “quality” or “attribute” of prakṛti, a way or manner in which it acts. Accordingly, Prabhupāda consistently translates guṇa by the English word “mode.”

All of us experience nature acting in three ways or modes—there’s nothing esoteric about this. Nature moves in repeating cycles made of three phases: creation, maintenance, and destruction. Whenever entities are being created, procreated, or constructed, nature is said to be acting in the mode of passion, rajoguṇa. When entities are being maintained, conserved, or preserved, nature is acting in the mode of goodness or purity, sattvaguṇa. And when beings undergo deterioration, decay, or destruction, nature’s mode of ignorance or darkness, tamoguṇa, is at work.

Entities come into being, endure for a time, and finally deteriorate and break down into their constituent parts. The end products of destruction are then taken up as raw materials to be assembled in the next cycle beginning with rajoguṇa. Such cycles continue perpetually, from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic levels.

In the Vedic world-view, this cycle is one of many manifestations of the three guṇas at work, for the three guṇas constitute the universal defining categories for all productions of nature. For example, the devas, or demigods, are as a group situated in sattvaguṇa; the human species in rajoguṇa; the animal, tamoguṇa. And then those groups are further subdivided according to the guṇas. Among animals, for example, the cow is said to be in sattvaguṇa; the lion, rajoguṇa; the monkey, tamoguṇa.

Sattva guna cowsGoodness

Raja guna lionPassion

Tama guna monkeyIgnorance

Or consider dwelling places: Prabhupāda writes (SB 4.12.29, purport): “It is said, therefore, that to live in the forest is in the mode of goodness, to live in the city is in the mode of passion, and to live in a brothel, liquor shop or slaughterhouse is in the mode of ignorance.” You can see the point:

Goodness forestGoodness

Passion cityPassion

Ignorance red lightIgnorance

Similarly, diversity among humans is also produced by the guṇas, and the Gītā describes the resultant symptoms of each.

Sattva is considered the best and purest of the modes. In fact, the spiritual realm, above the material guṇas, is characterized as śuddhasattva or viśuddhasattva—pristine or pure goodness. There sattva is free even of the slightest tinge of passion and ignorance: All is in everlasting existence, and nothing comes to be or ceases to be. However, when sattva becomes manifest within material nature, it becomes braided together with rajas and tamas, so that sattvaguṇa is never found without at least a taint rajas and tamas.

Like the other guṇas, sattva too binds the soul to matter. Because of its purity, it is illuminating and immaculate. Yet a person in sattva guṇa becomes bound—by attachment to happiness and knowledge.

Rajas is manifest by passion—especially sexual—and it is born out of lust and other sensory urges and drives. A person under the sway of rajoguṇa becomes driven by compulsions to action.

Tamas, born of ignorance, cause the delusion of all beings. A person in tamoguṇa becomes fettered by bewilderment, apathy, indolence, and sleep. He becomes attached to the befuddlement by intoxication and to the oblivion offered by sleep, drugs, or fantasy life.

When sattva is dominant, the senses become pure receptacles of knowledge. Attention is highly alert and inquisitive, yet detached and disinterested.

The prominence of passion is evinced by unslakeable greed and hankerings, by restlessness, and by an obsession with “getting things done” and the undertaking of many projects. Attention in this mode becomes narrow and excited, focused on the objects of desire.

The dominance of tamas is seen in a person who becomes indifferent to knowledge; avoids activity; neglects caring for himself, others, and his surroundings; and even shows clinical signs of mental disorders. In tamoguṇa attention tends to be attenuated, flickering, or misplaced.

In addition, the Gītā tells us that work (karma) done in each mode gives rise to a particular fruit or result (phalam): the good works done in sattvaguṇa produce pure and immaculate results; the product of work in rajaguṇa is suffering (duḥkham), and tamas engenders stupidity.

Summarizing, Prabhupāda writes: “The living entities conditioned by material nature are of various types. One is happy, another is very active, and another is helpless.”

Once I was granted a vision, a revelation of Prabhupāda’s words. It happened early one summer morning as I stepped out the front door of our Boston temple, a brownstone on Commonwealth Ave., a block and a half from the Public Garden. The two traffic lanes of the avenue sandwich a broad park-like meridian or mall, complete with shade trees, grass, and a wide walkway generously supplied with benches and civic statuary. I looked down from the temple entrance, across the inbound lanes, and into the mall and saw a living allegory enacted before my very eyes.

Boston Commonwealth AveCommonwealth Avenue Mall

On the near edge of the walkway stood a young temple devotee, in robes of pale fire, absorbed in chanting on his beads.  Moving on the pavement behind him, a nicely tonsured corporate go-getter in running shorts rushed by on slapping Nikes toward the Public Garden, Walkman wire swinging from his ear; and behind both figures a hirsute face rose up in annoyance from one end of a heap of filthy rags ranged upon a bench that sheltered several bottles flung upon the grass, each swaddled in the iconic paper bag. I saw it in a single glance! Sattva. Rajas. Tamas. The Epiphany of the Modes. If only my eye had been a camera!

Most of you will have recognized these three personality types, each with its particular constellations of characteristics, from your own experience (although it’s rare these days to encounter a person in the mode of goodness). You probably can also remember critical times in your own or another’s life in which a predominating mode was supplanted by another. The Gītā recognizes such alterations (14.10).

Indeed, we’re not only familiar with such upheavals ourselves; we’re fascinated by them. Consider the public’s insatiable appetite for true-life narrations about people (preferably famous) who dramatically undergo alterations in dominant modes. We’re all well acquainted with the basic plot: The hero, from hard-scrabble origins in tamoguṇa, rises by talent, luck, and labor to rajoguṇa, only to suffer a horrifying plummet and deeper re-immersion in tamoguṇa; then, impelled by the near miraculous intervention of an agent who personifies sattvaguṇa, the protagonist undertakes an agonizing, prolonged, and suspenseful struggle to eventually triumph by regaining rajoguṇa, leavened this time with a dollop of sattva.

It is clear that phenomena dealt with by the science of guṇatraya are not only familiar to us but important as well. The science teaches us how to see: it provides us categories that elucidate our experiences, guide and inform our perceptions. Offering a clear and coherent insight into the workings of the modes, it empowers us to deal with them effectively. Before, we had been travelers making our way blindly through an unfamiliar land. Now we have a map.


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Honest Happiness

Last Saturday afternoon at the Krishna-Balarama Mandir in Queens, NY, toward the end of conducting a workshop in chanting (japa-yoga), I felt thankful—as indeed I had on similar occasions—to be able to present the participants with the kind and reassuring statement that Kṛṣṇa himself offered Uddhava. And my auditors, whose sincerity and seriousness had become evident to me, were similarly grateful.

Queens Krishna Balarama 2Krishna Balarama in Richmond Hills, Queens

It is not possible to give honest and effective guidance in spiritual advancement unless one states clearly and emphatically, without hedging and weasel-wording, certain fundamental laws of spiritual life. Industrial engineers design effective power plants by complying with the laws of thermodynamics. In the same way, the “science of self-realization,” as Prabhupāda called it, imposes equally stringent demands on its practitioners.

Most of us have on some occasion felt oppressed by the constraints of the law. If we are honest, we still accept them. Otherwise, we cheat.

The temptation is to get something for nothing. If we give into this temptation, we become cheaters, and often cheated ourselves.

The confidence man Jimmy “Yellow Kid” Weil famously claimed that he had never cheated an honest person. “Each of my victims had larceny in his heart,” he observed.

In the Philadelphia airport, I had occasion at one time to observe a pair of free-lance peripatetic seller of watches working the crowds. They drew you aside and offered you a rare deal: a gleaming Rolex watch for a few hundred dollars, a tenth of the retail price. It was imperative to sell them quickly. Naturally you wondered how they were able to sell such expensive timepieces so cheaply, but by their haste, furtiveness, and weighty silences you were led to surmise that the chronographs were stolen goods. Of course, when you got home all delighted with your watch, closer inspection revealed not a Rolex but a “Bolex,” and it soon fell apart.

Spiritual life has its Bolex dealers:

Reporter: What frankly worries me is that since the arrival in Britain some time ago of an Indian yogī, who was the first “guru” that most people had ever heard of, a lot of “gurus” have suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Sometimes I get the feeling that not all of them are as genuine as they ought to be. Would it be right to warn people who are thinking of taking up spiritual life that they should make sure that they have a genuine guru to teach them?

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes. Of course, to search out a guru is very nice, but if you want a cheap guru, or if you want to be cheated, then you will find many cheating gurus. But if you are sincere, you will find a sincere guru. Because people want everything very cheaply, they are cheated. We ask our students to refrain from illicit sex, meat-eating, gambling, and intoxication. People think that this is all very difficult—a botheration. But if someone else says, “You may do whatever nonsense you like, simply take my mantra,” then people will like him. The point is that people want to be cheated, and therefore cheaters come. No one wants to undergo any austerity. Human life is meant for austerity, but no one is prepared to undergo austerity. Consequently, cheaters come  . . . .

Reporter: I wondered how many people you think might have been taken in by fake gurus.

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Practically everyone. [laughter.] There is no question of counting. Everyone.

Reporter: This would mean thousands of people, wouldn’t it?

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Millions. Millions have been cheated, because they want to be cheated. God is omniscient. He can understand your desires. He is within your heart, and if you want to be cheated, God sends you a cheater.

Reporter: When you say that lots of people want to be cheated, do you mean that lots of people want to carry on with their worldly pleasures and at the same time, by chanting a mantra or by holding a flower, achieve spiritual life as well? Is this what you mean by wanting to be cheated?

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, this is like a patient thinking, “I shall continue with my disease, and at the same time I shall become healthy.” It is contradictory. The first requirement is that one become educated in spiritual life. . . .”

—from “Saints and Swindlers:” An interview with the London Times, in The Science of Self-Realization

As Prabhupāda’s representative, I found myself in Queens trying to be perfectly clear about the incontrovertible law of spiritual life: Like health and disease, self-realization and sense gratification are mutually exclusive. They are inversely proportional: when direct spiritual experience increases, sense gratification decreases, and vice versa. To add visual reinforcement, I stretched both arms out sideways, flat palms up, miming what I asked them to imagine—an old-fashioned scale or pan balance, like the iconic “scale of justice.”

Pan balance

My right hand, I tell them, represents “self-realization;” my left, “sense gratification.” Then: “This in an inverse proportion,” and I begin raising my right hand: “Look at my right hand—self-realization is going up, and when you look at my left hand on the other side, you see sense gratification goes down.” Indeed, they see my left hand going lower and lower.  “And when sense gratification begins to rise”—the left hand begin going up—“see on the right how self-realization declines.”

Having, I hope, driven the point home, I conclude: “But this does not happen,” and I raise both hands simultaneously.

If we respectfully follow this law, then authentic spiritual life entails at the beginning, for almost everyone, a struggle with the mind and the senses. Prabhupāda gave us ample notice. For example:

To pursue the transcendental path is more or less to declare war on the illusory energy. When we accept any process of self-realization, we are actually declaring war against māyā, illusion, and māyā is certain to place many difficulties before us. Therefore, there is a chance of failure, but one has to become very steady. Whenever a person tries to escape the clutches of the illusory energy, she tries to defeat the practitioner by various allurements. A conditioned soul is already allured by the modes of material energy, and there is every chance of being allured again, even while performing transcendental disciplines. This is called yogāc calitamānasaḥ [BhG 6.37]: deviation from the transcendental path.


Devotional service is more or less a declaration of war against the illusory energy. As long as one is not strong enough to fight the illusory energy, there may be accidental falldowns. But when one is strong enough, he is no longer subjected to such falldowns . . . .

Until a practitioner becomes, in Prabhupāda’s phrase, “fixed up,” the war on māyā, the struggle with the mind and senses, may lead him or her to discouragement, depression, and even despair. One may give up, or become conned onto some cheating path, kaitavadharma.

Honesty, freedom from duplicity is the first requirement. When we teach and follow the path of honesty, however, we need to know what to do when we struggle and sometimes fail.

This is why I was happy, last Saturday in Queens, to be able to recall Kṛṣṇa’s words to Uddhava. Here (ŚBh 11.20.27-28) Kṛṣṇa describes his devotee who is still struggling with the senses. The practitioner is committed to the path: his faith in the process of devotional service has been awakened (jāta-śraddho mat-kathāsu), and he is disgusted with all materialistic activities (nirviṇṇaḥ sarvakarmasu). In fact, he knows very well that sense gratification of every kind has only suffering to offer him (veda duḥkhātmakān kāmān). Nevertheless, when it comes to giving up sense enjoyment, he finds himself unable (parityāgepy anīśvarah).

Here we find Kṛṣṇa’s clear portrayal of a divided, conflicted soul, one whose firm convictions and actual behavior are in conflict. Although a devotee assumes that Kṛṣṇa knows everything, it may still offers some succor to hear Kṛṣṇa himself describe what he’s going through.

What, then, should one in such an difficult position do? In this case, Kṛṣṇa goes on to say, the devotee should continue in his worship and remain happy and undiscouraged (tato bhajeta mā prītaḥ).  Prītaḥ may be a startling word here: the dictionary offers “pleased, delighted, satisfied, joyful, glad,” as translations. According to the commentary, “The Lord here encourages such a devotee not to be overly depressed or morose but to remain enthusiastic and to go on with his loving service.”

Kṛṣṇa continues: The devotee should go on worship him with faith and strong determination (śraddhālur dṛḍha-niścayaḥ). Though he may sometimes indulge in sense enjoyment (juṣamāṇaś ca tān kāmān), he knows that it leads to misery and he repents (duṣkhodarkāṁś ca garhayan).

Interestingly, this statement of Kṛṣṇa to Uddhava appears in paraphrase in Prabhupāda’s purport to Bhagavad-gītā 3.31. Prabhupāda does not identify the source of his statement, but its provenance is obvious: “In the beginning of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, one may not fully discharge the injunctions of the Lord, but because one is not resentful of this principle and works sincerely without consideration of defeat and hopelessness, he will surely be promoted to the stage of pure Kṛṣṇa consciousness.”

Here we find no duplicity about one’s own shortcoming, nor any hostility toward the divine injunctions; there is honesty, and at the same time there is prītaḥ, no consideration of defeat and hopelessness. There can be honest happiness yet—even in Queens.


Filed under happiness

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.

Death 1

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.

Death 2


Filed under Addtional Writings

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

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


Filed under Addtional Writings

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:


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


Filed under Addtional Writings

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.


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:


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-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.


Filed under Addtional Writings