A Poker Face

Hanuman “When I have spoken to you thus, why are you not responding to me? A pious soul named Sugriva, who is a warrior and a hero among Vanaras, being expelled by his brother, wanders the earth with a distressed mind.” (Hanuman speaking to Rama and Lakshmana, Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 3.19-20)

To be successful in the card game of poker, one must know how to hide their emotions. This practice keeps others in the dark, leaving them always second-guessing the player’s moves. Poker is a card game which involves gambling on each hand, so it is not possible to win every round. Therefore, the real winning and losing comes in the area of betting; deciding how much to wager and assessing the quality of the cards possessed by the opponents. If the other players have good hands, it is wise to fold right away, not betting any extra money. If you have a good hand, the smart play is to increase the bet in hopes that the fellow players will increase the overall pot, allowing for a bigger payoff. Since so much rides on whether a person has a good hand or not, it is important to not give away the makeup of your cards to your fellow player. In this regard, it helps to have a good “poker face”; a blank expression on the face which doesn’t allow the opponents to tell whether or not you have a good hand. In more abstract terms, when a person is able to keep others from knowing the workings of their mind, it is said that they are grave. This is one of the numerous qualities possessed by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Lord Krishna Why is it important to be grave? Moreover, why is it important to know that God is grave? So much of religion hinges on faith and surrender, the relinquishing of the fight to reign supreme over all of mankind. Surrendering is easier said than done, so any bits of information we can gather about the person we are surrendering to can go a long way towards helping us give up our fight against material nature. To aid us in this process, the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, give us thousands of names for God. It is not that God has a name, but rather He is identified by His numerous qualities and activities. For example, when Lord Krishna personally appeared on earth some five thousand years ago, He lifted a giant hill and held it up with the tip of His finger. Therefore one of His names is Girivaradhari. Lord Krishna also once killed a demon named Madhu, hence He is often referred as Madhusudana. Similarly, He killed another demon named Keshi, so He is known as Keshava. Figured out the pattern yet? Since Krishna killed the demon Mura, He is sometimes addressed as Murari.

Though it may seem otherwise, God does not spend all His time killing demons. He also gives pleasure to His friends. Since He is all-attractive, He is known by the name of Krishna. Since He gives transcendental pleasure to His devotees, He is known as Rama. Krishna is the god of the brahmanas, or the priestly class of men, thus He is known as brahmanya-devaya. He gives pleasure to the cows and the senses, so two of His other names are Govinda and Gopala. To ere is human, which means that every living entity is fallible to some degree. No matter how exalted we may become or how many millions of dollars we have in our bank accounts, we are all prone to falling down at some point or another. Since God is the only person who can never fall down, He is known as Achyuta, or the infallible one.

The Nectar of Devotion Devotees relish these appellations, and they also love to discuss the activities which led to the anointing of these names. The advanced devotees, like Shrila Rupa Gosvami, are so engrossed in Krishna consciousness that they like to scientifically break down Krishna’s attributes and exceptional qualities. In his book, Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, Rupa Gosvami gives a breakdown of Krishna’s different features and the different emotions that constitute bhakti. He also provides examples from Krishna’s pastimes to help the reader understand each of these points. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada wrote a summary study translation of this great book and titled it The Nectar of Devotion. For the purposes of this discussion, we are interested in the section of this book which describes Krishna as being grave.

“A person who does not express his mind to everyone, or whose mental activity and plan of action are very difficult to understand, is called grave.” (Shrila Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 26)

So why is it important to be grave? Our thoughts are the only possessions that we can keep completely private. Friends, family, and co-workers are around all the time, so they more or less know all about us; the things we like, our temperament, our nature, the things we don’t like, etc. Our parents know the most about us, for they enjoy telling embarrassing stories about our childhood to friends and family. This is quite natural because our parents knew us back when we couldn’t even walk. Even when we become adults, the parents still see us as helpless young children, so they like to remind us of our past shortcomings from time to time.

Though our close confidantes know our faults and weaknesses, no one has access to our thoughts. It is the one thing that belongs exclusively to us, so it is something we should try to hold on to as best we can. A person who can keep their emotions in check and keep others from knowing what’s going on in their head is certainly praiseworthy. If a person is grave, it usually means that they have the upper hand in situations. If someone doesn’t know what we’re thinking or how we’re feeling, they are likely to tip their hand first. They will volunteer their thoughts and give away their emotions before we will. This keeps us in control.

Lord Rama Of all the grave people in all of the universes, no one is better at keeping their emotions concealed than the Supreme Lord. There are many past incidents where this quality was displayed, but one of the more humorous ones related to an exchange between Lord Hanuman and Lord Rama. Lord Krishna expanded Himself into the form of a pious kshatriya prince named Rama during the Treta Yuga. As part of His pastimes, Lord Rama roamed the forests of India along with His younger brother Lakshmana and His wife Sita Devi. On one occasion, Rama and Lakshmana were wandering through the forest of Kishkindha looking for Sita, who had just been kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. At the time, a group of Vanaras [human-like monkeys] were living in Kishkindha. Their leader was the great fighter Sugriva, who saw Rama and Lakshmana approaching while he was on the top of the Rishyamukha mountain. Kishkindha was an asylum for Sugriva; he was living there out of fear of his brother Vali. The two had gotten into an argument which led to a great fight. Vali wanted to kill Sugriva, so the monkey fled to Kishkindha, an area which was off-limits to Vali due to a curse invoked by a brahmana.

Sugriva didn’t know who Rama and Lakshmana were, so he sent his chief warrior, Hanuman, to go and see what was going on. Sugriva asked Hanuman to assume a false guise just in case Rama and Lakshmana were emissaries of Vali who had come to kill him. While most people are aware that Hanuman is a great devotee of Lord Rama, this particular incident marked the first meeting between the great devotee and his supreme object of worship. It is kind of humorous if we think about it; Hanuman’s first meeting with Rama involved fear, trepidation, and deceit.

Hanuman did as he was told, choosing to approach Rama and Lakshmana in the guise of a mendicant since others tend to behave honestly towards holy men. Though Hanuman was asked to put on an act by welcoming the two brothers, he didn’t need to work too hard. After all, Hanuman was a pious soul from the time of his birth, so simply by seeing Rama and Lakshmana, he knew they were no ordinary human beings. Hanuman immediately began praising them through the most eloquent of speeches. After going on and on about their glories, Hanuman was surprised that Rama and Lakshmana weren’t responding. “I’m praising them so well, why aren’t they saying anything? Why aren’t they identifying themselves?” Finally, Hanuman cracked and revealed his true nature, telling Rama who he was and why he had come down.

Hanuman's service to Rama From this one incident, we see that no one has a better “poker face” than God. This was a very nice exchange that displayed Rama’s wonderful mercy. Since Lord Rama was grave, Hanuman was not able to understand His intent or mindset. This allowed Hanuman to go on and on praising the Lord, something which pleased Hanuman, Rama, and Lakshmana. God certainly likes to be praised by His devotees, especially the most exalted personalities like Hanuman. By keeping His emotions in check, the Lord allowed Hanuman to offer kind service to both He and His brother. Every quality possessed by the Supreme Lord is beautiful and pleasure-giving. We may not be able to tell what is on the Lord’s mind, but He most certainly can read our thoughts. Therefore it is wise to remove all inhibitions to the execution of devotional service by openly surrendering ourselves to the Lord.

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