Are You Better Off Today Than You Were

[Meeting Shabari]“Have you conquered all the obstacles in the way of your practice of austerities? Has your practice of austerity and penance steadily increased? O lady who possesses asceticism for wealth [tapodhane], have you been able to control your anger and your eating?” (Lord Rama speaking to Shabari, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.8)

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Friend1: I know you don’t like talking politics.

Friend2: About government or some religious institution?

Friend1: Either one.

Friend2: That’s true.

Friend1: Trust me, I’m not going too deep here. Just want to bring up something from the past, more about strategy and the like.

Friend2: You know why I don’t like talking about it, right?

Friend1: Because it’s not spiritual?

Friend2: There’s that, but also no one is ever satisfied. Look back in history. One person got elected, maybe overwhelmingly so. A few years later, that person, or at least their political party, is soundly rejected. It’s like a toggling pendulum.

Friend1: There is that established phenomenon where the first midterm election after a new president takes office sees their party get trounced. It’s happened so many times that people expect it now.

Friend2: For sure. Look at these two-term presidents. How many of them leave office holding control of either house of Congress?

Friend1: None. I get your point. Anyway, I was thinking back to a particular line from a Presidential debate that since has been incorporated into practically every campaign.

Friend2: Okay.

Friend1: It’s from the 1980 campaign. In a televised debate Ronald Reagan, the challenger, asked the people watching at home if they were better off today than they were four years ago. The idea was that if they thought things were going well in the country they should stick with the incumbent, Jimmy Carter. If they weren’t happy, maybe they should try something new.

[Reagan-Carter debate]Friend2: Oh yeah, that is a pretty famous line. So many candidates have used it since. It makes sense. Shows you how simple these campaigns really are. If you’re the challenger, just say everything is going terribly. If you’re the incumbent, point to your successes. Tell people how bad it was when you first took office and that if it weren’t for you the country would be in even worse shape today.

Friend1: Yes. I mean there were some particulars to that election, also. People talked about the “misery index.”

Friend2: Ironically, Jimmy Carter made that term prominent in his run for the office in 1976. It’s combining the unemployment rate and inflation. I forget the number, but Carter said that any person presiding over a certain misery index shouldn’t be reelected, referencing the incumbent Gerald Ford. Sure enough, four years later the misery index under Carter was even worse. Just goes to show you how fragile politics is. You can get burned by your own words later on.

Friend1: Like, “Read my lips, no new taxes.”

Friend2: There you go.

Friend1: So anyway, I would think the question from that debate would transfer well to the realm of spirituality, no?

Friend2: Which question? Material existence carries its own misery index, which is never at a good level.

Friend1: The question about “are you better off.”

Friend2: Oh, I never thought about that. I mean it is a great question for anyone to ask when they are gauging progress. I remember that Shri Rama asked questions along those lines when He met Shabari in the forest.

Friend1: The female ascetic?

Friend2: Yes. She welcomed Him with berries from the forest, and Rama was kind enough to engage her in a conversation. He asked if the faith in her spiritual teachers was growing. He asked if she was less concerned with eating. You could say He asked her if she was better off than she was before.

Friend1: I would think that materially you might be worse off.

[Meeting Shabari]Friend2: For sure. God is known as Hari because He sometimes takes away. If too much material opulence is getting in the way of the purification of consciousness, then the highest authority figure will lighten the burden, so to speak.

Friend1: Are you saying that if I take to chanting the holy names, practicing bhakti-yoga under the direction of a bona fide spiritual master, I should be better off in the future?

Friend2: You have to be. If it’s not the case, then you’re doing something wrong. From my personal experience, bhakti is the only thing I’ve tried where my enthusiasm for it has only increased with time. Think about that for a second. I’m not talking about staying engaged or avoiding boredom. Those are difficult enough to achieve. The enthusiasm has gone up. And it continues to increase.

Friend1: Wow. I guess you know that the practice is legitimate, then. What would you say to people who are having trouble? Sometimes they lose their friends and family. Sometimes they feel isolated, since no one around them is into higher pursuits, like achieving liberation for the soul.

Friend2: Again, while the journey may be difficult, progress is certainly made. Anyone who seeks the shelter of the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is better off for it. Even a little progress brings results to last for a long time, benefits that time cannot erase.

In Closing:

Success after feverish chase,

But benefits time to erase.

But with Shri Rama not the case,

God of most attractive face.

Enthusiasm way for progress gauging,

Not easy since war against maya waging.

But Supreme Lord there to protect,

Very soon progress to expect.

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