Questions Amidst Devotion

Is devotion affected by the Modes of Nature (gunas)? Is our freewill really free? Does prarabhada (manifest karmas) influence devotion? How do we receive Krishna’s grace? At what stage karmas cease to affect us?

I am at that milestone on the freeway of devotion from where what has been left behind looks like a gray sky with some streaks of sunlight leaking out. From this milestone, the difficult past looks worth the experience as well as worth letting go of. The road ahead has ecstatic divine sound on one side, and on its other side are words glorifying the blissful Truth. When I try to fix my eyes on the mountainous eternity ahead, a relishing glimpse of RadhaKrishna having divine fun with their dearest friends makes me a bit impatient – when will I join them?

As I am move closer (inch by inch) to the next milestone, questions and fears tag along at each step. Often I stumble over imaginary hurdles, sometimes I succumb to illusionary enemies created by my mind. No matter what it is, a devotional help line always comes to my rescue: phone-a-devotee, write-to-a-devotee, listen-to-lectures, chant-and-dance in sankirtana, relish-Krishna-prasadam, and so on. The freeway so far looks well-equipped for neophytes like me.

My questions and fears so far have been about factors that can heighten or subdue (temporarily) our devotional service. The devotional help lines have been VERY helpful in answering my questions and clearing away my doubts. What follows are spiritual insights gained via devotional help lines about some of those factors.

Each devotee is unique, and so are our devotional strengths and challenges that heighten and inhibit our devotion for Krishna from time to time. I wonder if my devotional strengths (if any) and challenges (galore!) were predetermined. If this is so, whether dressed as I am in the current body, mind, and intelligence will be able to overcome those challenges.

Nature (gunas; modes of nature), nurture (upbringing), and culture (society) shape our personality, but they alone don’t determine it. These factors do impel, but they can’t compel. Let’s look at each of them briefly:
Nature: Our nature is influenced by the three gunas: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.

The different modes of nature affect us at a different time. So, we are not affected by a single guna all the time. As Lord Krishna says in chapter 14, verse 10 of the Gita “Sometimes the mode of goodness becomes prominent, defeating the modes of passion and ignorance, O son of Bharata. Sometimes the mode of passion defeats goodness and ignorance, and at other times ignorance defeats goodness and passion. In this way there is always competition for supremacy.” If gunas push us, we can push them back.

Nurture: Our upbringing affects our psychological makeup, and it conditions us to perceive people, events, and relationships in a particular way. With the right type of knowledge and regular practice of that knowledge we can change our psychological makeup.

Culture: The society we live in, the culture we are exposed to condition our concepts of rights and wrongs. No matter which culture we are part of, there are always opportunities to see out-of-the-culture-box and adopt that which can set us free from the clutches of illusions.

While this is true that our nature, nurture, and culture are a result of our past karmas and therefore, our prarabhada (manifest karmas), beyond these three are two more factors:
Freewill: A soul can always use the freewill to make choices in favor of devotional service.
Krishna’s Grace: Our devotional choices and the efforts we put in to make them attract Krishna’s grace or mercy.

My experience: Before associating with ISKCON, the proportion of rajas used to be higher than the sattva. Gradually, this is changing because eating out is replaced with Krishna prasadam and mental speculation with devotional philosophy and chanting. The above insight resonates with me. Since I spend more time with devotees than with acquaintances or on social media, I can see how the impact of ‘culture’ is also reducing.

We know from scriptures that we have minute freewill. So, the little freewill that we have, is it really sufficient for us to make choices that gear us to perform devotional service persistently?

Freewill means to fix the “bowl of heart” under the “tap” of mercy. From spiritual pious merits we earn the intelligence to move the bowl at the right place. The power to open the tap lies with Krishna, Guru and other devotees.

The more we use our freewill for Krishna, the freer the freewill becomes. Rather than thinking in digital logic whether we have the freewill or we don’t, we should try and think of it as analog continuum. (For those with a dominant left brain.)

We should use the intelligence to find out the best way to remain connected with Krishna. In the initial stages of bhakti we can perform services that agree with our psychophysical nature. Choosing a service which unleashes our creativity will inspire us to stay connected with Krishna. Such a service intensifies our devotion. As we progress, we become inclined to do any service which pleases Krishna, irrespective of our psychophysical nature. In this way, bhakti intensifies.

While our capacity is facilitated or restricted by the nature of the dominating mode, we can increase it by making a right choice and praying to Krishna for empowering us to do so. The ease of offering prayers may vary depending upon the active mode because the active mode influences our abilities and thought processes at the time when it is prevailing. That said if we make informed choices; become persistent, our devotion becomes deeper and deeper with each step. For instance, when the mode of passion is prevailing, we can use our freewill to not go with the flow of passion and rather make a choice characterized by the mode of goodness. Instead of getting wasted in a pub, we can take the road that leads to an ISKCON temple, participate in devotional activities that agree with our nature and use our senses to perform those activities. Dance for Krishna, write about Krishna, read about Krishna, hear about Krishna, share meals blessed by Krishna, design dresses for Krishna, and so on. Making continuous attempts to remain in devotional mood prolong the duration of the mode of goodness. So, as the time passes by and efforts continue, the challenges turn into opportunities.

In the beginning, it takes significant amount of will and effort to make choices that disagree with the dominant mode. But, our first workout at the gym is not easy either. It tires us and causes several muscular pains and aches, but after regular practice, the stamina develops and the body becomes strong and shapes well. Similarly, to build our spiritual muscles, we need to start with whatever capacity we have.

Srila Prabhupada mentions in his book, Message of Godhead, ch. 2: “If these modes were not acting, then we would not have observed in the phenomenal world different varieties of activities. These different varieties of activities are conditioned by the different modes of nature … Such differences in the material world are due to the proper or improper use of free will enjoyed by the individual living entity … Therefore, the Lord says in Bhagavad Gita (5.13) that He is not the cause of anyone’s particular work, nor the authority, nor the result of such work—but that all these come out of the various modes of nature. Thus, all acts performed by the living entity—except those with transcendental results—are self—created engagements arising from an abuse of the free will.” – Message of Godhead

My experience: This deep insight reminded me of my first visit to the Love Feast program at ISKCON, Dwarka! I was down with food poisoning. My energy levels along with blood sugar and blood pressure were quite low. But, that day, something in my heart urged to attend the Love Feast program. I was getting this feeling or “either now, or never”.

Is prarabhda (Manifest karma) not a part of His Maya? It’s because of our prarabhda that we are entangled in our personalities/thought processes, and therefore, our actions that further lead to reactions. So, to follow the path of devotional service, shouldn’t we be bestowed with the required resolve?

The fabric of matrix of action and reaction is made up of the three modes of nature. Therefore, our prarabdha does bring obstacles in the successful execution of devotion, but what matters is the sincere longing and efforts, not the end result. (Our efforts may look like a failure in the initial attempts, but those are the building blocks of deep devotion.).

If one doesn’t have the resolve to be sincere on the path of bhakti , we may need to go back a little in the history (may be in the previous lives as well) to see how much bhakty-unmukhi sukriti (those spiritual pious merits that inspire one for bhakti) a soul has accumulated. A soul who has not earned bhakty-unmukhi sukriti can acquire it by the mercy of devotees whose hearts are the carriers of bhakti. And this is what Shrila prabhupada and his devotees have been doing. For some souls, it may take longer than expected, but everyone gets there.

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains this point in Sri Caitanya Caritamrita Madhya 22.45. “In the scriptures, devotional service and pious activity are considered fortunate. Pious activities can be divided into three categories: pious activities that awaken one’s dormant Krishna consciousness are called bhakty-unmukhi sukriti, pious activities that bestow material opulence are called bhogonmukhi sukriti, and pious activities that enable the living entity to merge into the existence of the Supreme are called mokshonmukhi sukriti. These last two awards of pious activity are not actually fortunate. Pious activities are fortunate when they help one become Krishna conscious. The good fortune of bhakty-unmukhi is attainable only when one comes in contact with a devotee. By associating with a devotee knowingly or unknowingly, directly or indirectly, one advances in devotional service, and thus one’s dormant Krishna consciousness is awakened.”

“By good fortune one becomes eligible to cross the ocean of nescience, and when one’s term of material existence decreases, one may get an opportunity to associate with pure devotees. By such association, one’s attraction to Krishna is awakened.” Sri Caitanya Caritamrita Madhya 22.45.

My experience: I had once asked my astrologer if devotion can be seen in a horoscope. He answered that pious merits and spiritual growth can certainly be seen from a chart; however, it may not be possible to determine whether the spiritual growth will lead to devotion or not. He agreed that devotion is gifted by devotees.

One may have the intention to follow the process, but their prarabhda may be creating hurdles in terms of doubts, distractions etc.
Hurdles make the whole process very adventurous, though sometimes there are severe setbacks, or so the struggler may think, but factually these hurdles only convinces the struggler to ultimately surrender to Krishna completely.
Prarabhda’s impact reduces as we make sincere effort toward His devotion. The hallmark of bhakti is that it destroys karmas. “All stages of karma – manifest, unmanifest, seeds/desires, and internal inclinations – are destroyed in turn by Vishnu Bhakti.” (Padma Puraṇa)

In Brahma Samhita (5.54), Brahma says “Karmani nirdahati kintu ca bhakti-bhajam.” Nirdahati. Karmani, the resultant actions of your past karmas can be vanquished by Krishna.

In the climax verse of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna Himself assures us of protection from the negative impact of prarabhda aham tvam sarva-papebhyo mokhayisyami (BG 18.66). “I shall give you protection.”
My experience: Before associating with ISKCON, Krishna kept bringing verse 18.66 to my notice for quite some time. All I can say to this is, He was indicating that He wanted to fix the bone-of-prarabhda-contention.

At what stage of Bhakti is prarabhada destroyed?
Bhakti has the three primary stages: Sadhana, Bhava, and Prema. The Nector of Devotion, Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu by Srila Rupa Goswami provides a wealth of knowledge on this area.

As we begin the chanting of the Hare Krishna mahamantra, our psychological disposition and desires go through transformation. This increases our inclination for devotion which is transcendental; beyond the gunas. Therefore, the burning of karmas begins at the first stage itself. As our devotion becomes deep, the impact of karmas reduces. “One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus leaf is untouched by water.” Bhagavad Gita 5.10. At this stage, we may have grudges against Krishna or doubts about the process, but saintly association helps us transcend them. Struggles in cultivating Krishna Consciousness at this stage cleanse the dirt that we have accumulated life after life. So, frictions within or without light the fire of bonafide spiritual realizations and awaken our dormant love for Krishna.

To bring out a beautiful sculpture from a big piece of rock, the sculpture chisels the rock and rids it of the unwanted matter. Likewise, the spiritual chiseling is essential to bring out the beauty of the soul. Although painful, this chiseling strips off the layers created by material ego. And what comes out is a beautiful spiritual being; a beautiful soul who is in pure love with All Beautiful Krishna.

The manifest condition of our body and the external conditions become less important. So, when one becomes consistently steady (Naishtiki bhakti) in devotional practices, karmas practically become powerless. The momentum of karmas remain, but we are least affected by it. Archarayas give this analogy for our understanding: When flowers are removed from a room, the residue of their fragrance remains for some time. In this way, one can smell the presence of anarthas (contamination in the heart) but is least affected by it especially on the gross level.

As we practice devotional service in ecstasy our body consciousness reduces significantly, and the experiences caused by prarabhada cease.
“Like blazing fire turns wood to ashes, My bhakti consumes karma.” ( Bhagavad Gita 4.37)

If bhakti destroys karmas, shouldn’t it stop devotees from falling?

We fall because we give in to our past conditioning. We give in because we give up what is in favor of bhakti. We fall because of any of all of the following reasons:
Negligence in sadhana : Some examples of negligence in sadhana are: Skipping rounds of the mahamantra, multitasking while chanting, eating food prepared in restaurants where the possibility of contamination of both mind and body is quite high, spending too much time over discussing current affairs of the country, reading too much about matters that can influence our thought process adversly. While it’s important to be in the swim about what’s going on in world, we must be careful not to go with that flow which can throw us in a whirlpool of illusions and negativities.

Bad association: If our sadhana is weak, our ability to discriminate between bad association and devotee association diminishes. Bad association can catch us in the same way an unpredicted natural calamity hit us. Sadhana protects us from both, inner evils and outer non-devotional facilities.

Lack of inspirational association: It’s essential to be in the company of sincere, inspirational, and likeminded devotees. Those who keep all their faculties engrossed in devotional practices exude positive energy and attract other devotees by their spiritual aura. Neither they while away their precious time over trivia, nor let others go astray.
My experience: The above insights are so practical! The day I don’t complete my chant in the morning, or if I am too distracted, I don’t feel great that at all. If I had not met some sincere and like-minded devotees at the temple, I wouldn’t have progressed at all. My life has gone through many changes in the last one year. So many more to come!

What does it take to increase the intensity of devotion so that karmas don’t interrupt our progress?

Attachment to the association of devotees intensifies bhakti. Absorption in Krishna katha and Krishna naam kirtan bring all the required potency. To sum up, no matter how we embarked on the path of devotion, our desire; intention and continuous effort, and Krishna’s grace help us transcend the barriers within us or those outside of us. The rope of love that binds lord Damodar was short by two fingers. In the length and breadth of those two fingers lies the whole spectrum of our devotional journey. Our Vaishnava acharayas have revealed to us that one finger signifies incessant effort and the other, Krishna’s magic wand of grace; His Kripa Sakti. It’s our will and efforts that attract His grace. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita 4.11, “As they approach Me, I reward them accordingly.” The key to His magic wand of grace is our incessant efforts. All we need to do is exercise our freewill toward reviving our loving relationship with Krishna.
Whether we win as Arjuna did, or we fail like Jatayu lost, Krishna loves us in both cases. In testing times, the journey may look longer, but His pure devotees have installed energy boosters for us at each step. So, if we end up somersaulting over hurdles, we should use the free will to get up and get going on the freeway of devotion.
This article is based on guidance received from His Grace Chaitanya Charan Das and His Grace AmoghLila Das.


The Law of Attraction in the World of Maya

The new age mantra of Positive Thinking, whose premise is the Law of Attraction, is touted as a magic wand to fulfill all our dreams. We can create anything here, the advocators of the mantra say. Children, money, lover, spouse, job, health — just anything! There are many case studies to endorse this mantra.  It seems like the God recalled the Vedas to His Kingdom, and, instead, He gifted us the ability to manifest our desires just by thinking positively about them. Right? Well, not so right! If this was so, then Positive Thinking could serve us what we have been after–life after life – a continuous state of happiness. A life full of joy in which there are no miseries, no heartbreaks, no accidents, no diseases, no old age (Long live Botox and all the hair color brands).

Mundane attachment to our possessions and relationships causes more misery and creates more vacuum in our lives than their lack could. Things and people that should cause happiness become the reasons of our pain. The state of happiness doesn’t last beyond a few moments, days, or months. Misery follows happiness disguised as a natural calamity, as a disease, as a pain caused by/caused to someone we love.

Indisputably we all want to be happy forever; moment after moment, month after month, year after year, and life after life. So if there is a desire for eternal happiness, then the eternal happiness must exist somewhere, or why would we yearn for it so much? If eternal happiness was possible through the combination of five elements, senses and sense objects, mind, intelligence, and false ego, then we would have created mountains of it by now, and what more we would be exporting to the rest of the world. The rich Indians wouldn’t need Swiss bank accounts and black money. The Americans would have replaced their stocks of oil with eternal happiness, and the Chinese would have become smug having more of happiness than Uranium. Amsterdam’s Red Light District would sell it shamelessly, and their drug cafes would inject it our veins legally. It doesn’t seem to be happening, so eternal happiness is missing from the globe. The Law of Attraction doesn’t seem to be attracting eternal happiness! It can’t because the mantra’s energy functions within the law of the Maya (nature) which can’t offer everlasting things, feelings, or states.

The positive thinking mantra’s energy stems from the mode of Passion, which is one of the three modes of Maya. The quality of Passion is to create and expand temporarily using the elements, senses, mind, intelligence, and the false ego. From the Bhagavad Gita, we learn that Maya controls us through its three modes: the mode of Ignorance (Keeps us in darkness by covering the Absolute Truth), the mode of Passion (Gives us desires and conditional ability to fulfill them temporarily), and the mode of Goodness (Makes us conduct pious activities). We think we are the Doer, but actually we are just Maya’s prey.

Bhagavad Gita 14.10: “Sometimes the mode of goodness becomes prominent, defeating the modes of passion and ignorance, O son of Bharata. Sometimes the mode of passion defeats goodness and ignorance, and at other times ignorance defeats goodness and passion. In this way there is always competition for supremacy.

Well, if Maya is the Doer, then who am I? I can’t be this body, because, for example, in case of natural death, the body still remains when someone dies. I can’t be my thoughts alone because then a thoughtless mind (The Buddhist mind) would simply cause me to die. I can’t be my senses either, because detachment from the objects and subjects of senses would then kill me instead of setting me free. So who am I after all?

We are Marginal Energy of God, and that’s why we have inherited His qualities, in small quantity though. He is the original creator; we imitate Him in this world by creating stuff made of matter. He is Sat-Chit-Ananda-Vigraha; the embodiment of knowledge and bliss, so we too wish to be the knower of the Truth so we can be happy.

Soul: The one who desires

Material nature: The ingredients provider

Supersoul: The approver

But, we don’t seem to be getting what we so much desire. Why? Can a screw function independently of the machinery of which it’s just a small part? No, it can’t! Can it work just like the machine after ‘falling off’ from the machine? No it can’t. So, to make that screw valuable it must be fit in its original place. The screw’s identity is that it is a small part of the machine. Screw can’t think and acts like the machine, it can only serve it by doing what it’s supposed to do. Similarly, we are eternal servitors of God, and our purpose is to serve God and do what He wishes us to do.

Why am I here if I should be serving Him? What is this world after all? Lord Krishna enlightened Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra by answering all the questions that can be asked. Who am I? What is this world? Why am I here? How should I get away from this miserable world? How can I be eternally happy? (Time to hear the transcendental song of Krishna.)

God, Krishna, says this world is His creation. Not just this world but all the universes and planets that are floating in the material sky are created through His external energy (Maya). While Maya, the in-charge of this material world, likes us to remain entrapped forever in a variety of forms, Krishna dearly wants us to return Home. Krishna says this world is a perverted reflection of the world where we originally belong. We are conditioned souls and His children. Conditioned souls desire to lord it over the material nature, so to fulfill our desires, Krishna arranges for those souls to take birth in different planets and in different forms. 84 millions forms!!! In the form of humans, we get a little freewill so we could decide and act if we would like to continue experiencing material worlds, or we would like to go back Home. Krishna watches us seated in our hearts while we are using our freewill. He observes whether we still want to falsely create and superficially enjoy through the agency of Maya, or we are genuinely trying to re-gain our lost identity, as well as the way to our Original Home (the Kingdom of God). In case of former, He lets us enjoy (suffer) according to our karmas and desires, and in the latter situation if helps us find our way.

Beyond this world, beyond any material world (e.g. that of UFOs and aliens, Poseidon, or even Heaven), there is a spiritual world which is the personal abode of Krishna. This world exists through the Internal Potency of Krishna; His superior energy. Originally, we are residents of this world. We can go back Home only when we are saved from the clutches of Maya. In our Original Home, matter has no place  (Time assists in the lila between Lord and His devotees), so miseries caused by them are also missing. In our Home, there is no need for positive thinking! Because we remain in ecstasy; in eternal joy eternally. Emily Dickinson’s beautiful couplet hints at the Kingdom of God:

This world is not conclusion;
A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
But positive, as sound.

Alright, but How do we serve Him? How do we get away from the net of Maya?

With Love. When we are truly in love with someone we include them in our thoughts, our plans, and our actions even on day-to-day basis. So love Krishna and make Him the center of our existence.

The natural constitution of soul is to love God. We will be eternally happy when we regain our natural position. To love Krishna, we should use our senses in doing things for Krishna. This will purify our senses. So, if you like to read, then read the scriptures about Krishna. He will guide you through His literary energy. If you like to sing, sing His holy names. It’s His commitment that He dances on our tongues when we sing His names in devotion. If you like to dance, dance for Krishna and become purified. Before you eat, offer our food to Krishna. His transcendental touch will transform the energy of our food.

We learn from the Bhagavad Gita that actions performed with the spirit of devotion for Krishna don’t create reactions. Anything done for the pleasure of our senses leads to misery because every action has an opposite reaction. The seemingly good works also have their opposite reactions, if not done with Krishna being the center of the activity.

To be eternally happy we should surrender to Krishna. In the climax verses (18.65-18.66)of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says:

Think about Me always and become My devotee.
Worship and give homage and you shall return to Me.
Giving up religious creeds, submit yourself to Me.
I accept your former sins. Have no anxiety.
(Credits: Song Divine)

To guide us, He is seated in our hearts as Vishnu. Outside of us He sends a bona-fide spiritual master from His own tradition. This master, with the help of scriptures and through his mercy, shows us the way.

By the way, how can Krishna create these gigantic worlds when He Himself is a person?Krishna is the Supreme Person as explained the Vedas. He has appointed demigods and demigoddesses to execute His will. Krishna is the supreme enjoyer, and everyone and everything else functions for the enjoyment of Krishna.

In the Brahma Samhita, Brahma (whom Krishna has delegated as the Lord of Passion (Creator)) describes Krishna as (5.1):
“Kṛṣṇa who is known as Govinda is the Supreme Godhead. He has an eternal blissful spiritual body. He is the origin of all. He has no other origin and He is the prime cause of all causes.”

Why Should I Believe in Scriptures? Scriptures are considered to be the Mother of humanity. Scriptures were created in the state of unalloyed goodness which cannot be experienced in this world unless God shows his mercy.

Isn’t it ironical that we buy scientific theories without questioning them but we question scriptures whose authenticity is proven? Scientists can’t traverse beyond the realm of Maya. Therefore, science and scientific conclusions are bound by the laws of nature. For example there are many scientific constants that have changed many times, so now they are jokingly called as variables.

To quote a few examples, a major scripture (Srimad Bhagavatam) predicted 2600 years in advance that Vishnu would descend as Lord Buddha to preach atheists. His name, family etc were clearly mentioned. Vedic scriptures consider cows as our mother because her milk is gives nutrition to our brain cells. What more even her urine works a medicine. Recent scientific researches are in agreement with this fact stated in the scriptures.

Through His Literary avatar Srila Vedavyasa, Krishna compiled the Vedanta Sutras, that is, all the knowledge about the Creation, Maintenance, and Dissolution, as well as how to go beyond the Material sky and go back to the Kingdom of God where we originally belong.

Krishna sprouted a desire in Srila Vadavyasa’s heart to create a literature which will teach the Absolute Truth through explanations as well as factual stories. Srimad Bhagavatam is called the ripened fruits of the tree of the Vedas because this scripture bestows upon us the knowledge of the Absolute Truth and the spirit of Devotion without which all our material and spiritual marathons are a big waste.

How do we make sure that we learn from these scriptures in the right way? We should learn through the Parampara (Tradition) in which knowledge is transferred from the previous Guru to the next Guru. And this parampara should have a direct connection with Krishna. In other words, Krishna is the first Guru in such a parampara. Śrīla Bhaktivinode Thakur revived the saṁkīrtana movement,  which Chaitainya Mahaprabhu started to help humanity sail through this world (on the boat made of Krishna’s love). Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta then prepared the movement for a global context. Śrīla Prabhupada actually carried the movement around the world and established it’s foothold everywhere. Srila Prabhupada revived the Krishna Consciousness movement. Srila Prabhupada appeared in this world to initiate us into the mantra of eternal happiness which works beyond the realm of Maya. Srila Prabhupada, the founder Acharya of ISKCON, explained the purports of all the revealed scriptures in such a way that Maya can’t mislead us anymore. His truly spiritual courseware for humanity prepares us to go back Home while getting a good taste of eternal happiness in this world itself.

Srila Prabhupada is the 32nd spiritual master in the unbroken chain in which the first master is no one but Krishna Himself. Krishna played the role of the spiritual master for Arjuna.

The Right Process:

The process of hearing and chanting is the ultimate refuge.  We also need devotees association and the spiritual master  to give us potency to connect to Shrila Prabhupada. 

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare