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Saṁsāra in California

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

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

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

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

Ah, the material world.

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

THE METAPHOR OF THE WILDFIRE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE METAPHOR OF THE DEER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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