Tag Archives: happiness

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