“To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 10.10)
Regardless of the particular sect, denomination, or region, the basic principles of religion are pretty much the same: devote yourselves to God, don’t be selfish, and be kind to your fellow man. In the Vedic tradition, especially amongst the followers of Lord Vishnu, the ultimate objective of spiritual life is the changing of consciousness. Since the conditioned soul is mired in a consciousness which focuses on temporary and transient objects, the purified consciousness is one where the reverse situation is true. The goal of human life is to always be thinking about God and to be conducting one’s actions based off this mindset. To this end, bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is the recommended spiritual discipline, the only engagement worth taking up. While this linking of the individual consciousness with the Supreme can have one or many components, the quintessential act of devotion is the chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
To learn more about the science of bhakti-yoga, one is advised to approach a bona fide spiritual master, a person who has given up the pursuit of perfection in material life and instead shifted their consciousness to the Divine. Those who fit this description are hard to find, therefore it is advised that one at least consult such an exalted figure’s writings. More than any other spiritual tradition, the Vedas have the most comprehensive set of scriptures, poems, and commentaries that exist in the world. There are the primary texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas, along with countless commentaries and summary studies provided by the great saints of the past. Though the depth and scope of Vedic literature is quite vast, the ultimate conclusion across these works remains the same: God is the Supreme, and as fragmental sparks from the Supreme, it is the duty of the individual to be fully engaged in His service.
For the people of the current age, the Vedic seers, the Vaishnava saints, recommend not only the chanting of the holy names of God, but also the abstention from sinful life, the most harmful activities of which fall into four categories: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. Chanting is the assertive activity, an act of work and devotion, and the restrictions on sinful life are the passive activities. These restrictions are known as the four regulative principles, and simply by adhering to such standards, one can make tremendous progress in spiritual life. As Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, states in the Bhagavad-gita that all purposes of Vedic rituals are served by one who knows the purpose behind them, one who knows the reasoning behind the chanting and four regulative principle recommendations certainly has achieved the highest level of understanding.
So what is the purpose behind such recommendations? Why are there do’s and don’ts in spiritual life? As mentioned before, the ultimate objective is to change one’s consciousness. Currently our consciousness is focused on things of the immediate future, such as where to eat, sleep, mate, have a good time, etc. Our consciousness also sometimes delves into incidents of the immediate past, most notably those events which didn’t go our way. “I can’t believe such and such said that to me; I can’t stand them; I can’t believe I had to wait so long at the airport; I’m never flying with that airline again.” So many thoughts go through our head throughout the course of the day, and all of these ponderings and lamentations make up our consciousness.
The aim of spiritual life is to change our way of thinking. The ultimate enjoyment in life comes through love. Through spending time with our friends, family, or paramours, we exchange love and thus feel a great sense of pleasure. By the same token, the most intense emotion in all of life, both material and spiritual, can be felt when this love is exchanged with the ultimate reservoir of pleasure, Lord Krishna. Though man takes in so much information throughout the course of one lifetime, there are really only three things worth realizing: God is the original proprietor of everything, He is our friend, and He is the ultimate enjoyer. In order for the Lord to enjoy, there must be an enjoyed. This is where the individual souls come into play. As subordinate fragmental sparks from the original fire, we are meant to be enjoyed by God. Since we have a minute amount of independence, we have a tendency to forget this fact and think of ourselves as the enjoyers. When our mindset changes from enjoyers to the enjoyed, we have achieved perfection in life.
So we have the prescriptions given to us by the great saints. While chanting God’s name is seen as the most effective religious activity for the people of this age, not everyone will take to it. Even if we do adopt a chanting regimen, how much time should we devote to it? After all, we have other responsibilities to meet during the course of the day. If we don’t work, we won’t have any money to take care of our home, friends, and family. If we don’t clean the house, everything will get dirty and start to look unpleasant. If we don’t eat on time, we will get hungry and tired. These obligations surely must be met, but the chanting routine mustn’t be neglected. Therefore Vaishnava saints have prescribed a minimum number of chanting rounds to be performed. While God’s name is powerful enough to provide liberation, chanting is usually performed in a semi-formal setting. One first takes a japa mala, a kind of rosary set which consists of 108 beads held together on a string. The mala is held in the right hand, with the fingers focusing on one bead at a time. On each bead, the selected mantra is chanted, and then one moves on to the next bead. After one has chanted on each of the 108 beads, one round of japa is complete. The minimum number of rounds recommended for each day is sixteen.
For those who are familiar with Sanskrit, or a language derived from it, chanting the sacred maha-mantra is not that difficult. The tongue is already accustomed to saying “Krishna”, “Rama”, and “Hare”, so after some familiarity with the mantra is acquired, this chanting process doesn’t take that long. During formal Vedic functions, one will notice that the brahmanas [priests] performing the rituals recite the relevant mantras very quickly. They whip through the most complex of Sanskrit words without a problem, pronouncing all the words perfectly at the same time. In the 1980s, there was a notable personality on television who was known for his fast-talking abilities. John Moschitta, Jr. appeared in commercials for toys like Micro Machines by speaking very quickly and cramming as much relevant information into the allotted time as possible. The yajnic brahmanas sound very similar with respect to the speed in which they recite mantras.
For those who are unfamiliar with speaking a Sanskrit-based language, chanting the maha-mantra can be quite difficult. As an added wrinkle, one is advised to avoid various offenses while chanting, one of which is inattentiveness. All of these issues combine to make chanting sixteen rounds quite difficult, especially in the beginning stages. Though the routine is difficult, we should remember the purpose behind such a recommendation. The ultimate aim is to change one’s consciousness, and this can only occur through activity. We can’t just decide to change our way of thinking overnight, especially if we are engaged in activities that relate to the things that we are trying to forget. It’s like saying that we never want to think about food again, while at the same time spending the entire day at a buffet restaurant.
So let’s say that we adhere to the chanting routine of sixteen rounds daily, along with refraining from the four pillars of sinful life. Does this mean that our problems are over? Obviously it doesn’t, for material life is full of ups and downs, highs and lows. During the low times, where do we go for guidance? What if there are no spiritual masters around to help us? How do we solve our problems if we are already engaged in devotional service?
To find the solution, let’s analyze the two most common problems that come up in our day-to-day affairs. The first negative condition is disappointment. They say that all the thoughts of the human brain can be grouped into one of two categories: hankering or lamenting. One minute we are hankering after something; either the association of a person or the acquisition of an object. The next minute we are lamenting the fact that we don’t have said object or that we have lost something valuable to us. Disappointment arises from the failure to achieve a positive condition, especially if the condition was expected to be met. For example, say that we’re driving to work one day and all of a sudden there’s a huge traffic jam. Some accident has occurred many miles ahead, and now traffic is backed up to a standstill. Naturally there will be disappointment because we had the expectation of getting to work on time. Arrival at work was the positive condition that we were expecting, and now suddenly it gets taken away.
“While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.62)
The other commonly encountered negative condition actually results from disappointment. This condition is known as anger. We become so disappointed from failing to achieve our desire that we become angry. Anger is worse than disappointment because anger can lead to bewilderment, which can lead to loss of judgment. By losing our judgment, we can act irrationally. Irrational actions lead to a much worse negative condition than what we started with; hence it is not known as activity which is not based on any rational thought. The famous saying, “Cut your nose to spite your face”, illustrates the cause and effect of irrationality. If one is angry at their face for the appearance it presents, cutting off the nose doesn’t make any sense. It is an irrational act because cutting the nose off actually makes one look even more unattractive, while at the same time doing nothing to quell one’s anger.
So where does bhakti-yoga fit into all of this? How do we solve our problems of disappointment and anger without the physical presence of a spiritual leader to help us? The above mentioned examples only scratch the surface of disappointment and anger, for the magnitudes of both negative situations can be greatly increased through tragic events such as death, loss of wealth, and divorce. How can Krishna help us deal with these situations? Moreover, how can we decipher the proper course of action in situations where we are not confident in ourselves?
The solution to these problems can be found in bhakti-yoga itself. Disappointment in relation to maya, or things which aren’t Krishna, can never be eradicated. The secret to success is to mitigate the effects of disappointment. This can only happen when our main business is bhakti-yoga. The more we take to devotional activities, the more the influence of outside desires and the potential for disappointment get reduced. Our main business every day is to perform as much devotional service as possible. This service includes chanting, hearing, remembering, worshiping, and surrendering everything unto God. If we are chanting sixteen rounds and still feeling anger and sadness, we should either take to chanting more rounds or find additional activities of devotional service. Part of the day can be spent reading Vedic texts, watching classic movies, listening to kirtanas, travelling to temples, looking at pictures, offering prayers in front of the deity, cooking nice food preparations to be offered to the Lord, etc. The options are endless.
As mentioned before, Krishna is the enjoyer, so He is the real beneficiary of devotional service. When we are faced with a quandary, a situation where we’re unsure of what to do, the way to decipher the proper course of action is to figure out what will make Krishna happy. Lord Hanuman, the faithful servant of Lord Rama, once faced a difficult situation where he was unsure of what to do. Hanuman was sent by Rama, an incarnation of Krishna, to find the whereabouts of Sita, the Lord’s wife. Upon reaching the island kingdom of Lanka where Sita was, Hanuman saw the great strength and opulence of the King of Lanka, Ravana, and became distraught. Thinking that there was no way to find Sita and successfully return to Rama, Hanuman contemplated suicide. Not knowing what to do, he ultimately decided to carry on with his mission because only by staying alive could he have the opportunity to serve Rama. Not performing devotional service would not have done anyone any good. He chose the path of action in devotion because even if he failed, at least he made an attempt to satisfy Rama.
Of course things would work out in the end, for no one is stronger than Hanuman. We can apply the same lesson to our situations. We certainly will have to deal with unexpected predicaments even after we sincerely take to devotional service, but our aim should be to please Krishna, the ultimate enjoyer. Keeping this goal in mind, both the spiritual master, in the form of his instructions, and the Supersoul residing within our heart will surely guide us on the right path.
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