Adventures in Humility

News, Views, and Chews on spiritual issues.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Chanting 64 Rounds a Day

My dear friend Sri Advaita dasji has recently posted his views on chanting 64 rounds. I must say that I agree in principle that the Gaudiya sadhakas must chant or aspire to chant 64 rounds of Sri Harinama per day, but I also acknowledge the reasons why it may be difficult to do so. Some time back I came across an interesting article on VNN which was chock-full of quotes form Mahaprabhu and purvacharyas about the glories of 64 rounds. There is also a fantastic article about it on Vilasakunja which I think is more informative and enlightening.

So it is clear that this is Mahaprabhu's desire, but the world has changed a heck of a lot since then. Most people simply do not have the time to sit around all day and chant a lakh of japa in spite of how much they would like to. Of course there are the serious sadhakas who make an effort to do this and actually do it, but the facts don't change for your average sadhaka who has responsibilities of studying, employment and/or married life. Plenty of people have too much of a problem chanting 16 rounds so it is absolutely wild if it was suggested to do 64.

Don't get me wrong here, I would love to chant 64 rounds but I also sensibly recognise that I would have the time to commit myself to that at some point in the future. Personally, I'm the type of person who enjoys absorbing my mind in the glories and shimmering radiance of Sri Gaurasundara Mahaprabhu's Golden Lotus Feet and, as such, it takes me around 15 minutes to complete one round. :-/ When I hear some sadhakas talk about how "easy" it is to chant their rounds quickly (however many they chant) and describing how they do it, I am at a loss for words. Of course I can chant faster if I wanted to but I would knowingly be sacrificing quality for quantity, and so in that respect I agree with Advaita dasji's points on the same and possibly extending to the concept of offences.

Other offences would also creep into the arena. I find the point about "looking down your noses" aty people who chant lesser rounds to be extremely telling of practical experience. Too often I have seen this take place and the worst thing is that people may not even realise that they're doing it! That is the psychology of the egocentric complex, it is self-evident that one's own practice is "perfect". Other points could stand for the fact that your "perfect" practise is self-evident to others too and failing to recognise that it may not be so. Yet another point relates to fault-finding that may be carried out at an unconscious level: "Ha ha ha, I chant 64 rounds, where you at?!?! 16 rounds??? SO behind!!" People who read this may even think, "hey, I don't do that!" The sad fact is that, according to established psychological research, you do. Even if it is unconscious.

And so that's another offence. Anarthas have a tendency to become almost imperceptible as you progress along the path, hey? ;-) Maybe that's the trick of Mahaprabhu, to differentiate between the wheat and the chaff as it were.

A couple pf posts ago I described my recent trip to the temple. I mentioned how I don't usually take my mala to the temple since I am almost always called away to do seva so I never get the time to chant. Busy guy. But because it was Ratha-yatra day and I couldn't go, I found the opportunity to sit on a bench, enjoy the cool breeze and do some serious japa. Even if I do say so myself, I found my japa to be very fulfilling and I did feel rather peaceful. But as this particular bench was placed facing the area where prasad would be served as well as the fact that more people were arriving at the temple and passing by where my bench was, they invariably saw what I was doing. It's bad enough that you have to wear a tilak that some might find ostentatious but it's quite another when your hand is in a bead-bag fingering a mala.

What would people think? Who knows? Who cares? On one hand I may be oblivious to people's stares because I am simply doing my own sadhana and if they didn't understand what I was doing, tough luck, it's none of their business actually. On the other hand, my chanting of japa is drawing attention and this is why they're looking in the first place.

Two predominant streams of thought surface in my mind. One of them relates to how "embarrassed" I feel at their watching me chant. Maybe they may have a sense of admiration for people who chant, and for people who receive such admiration should be worthy of such admiration. Consequently, it would not do well to externally chant but have their mind on other things that are invariably mundane. It made me realise that, if people possibly admire the fact that I chant, it would be appropriate to be worthy of that by genuinely concentraing my mind on Gaurasundara.

The other stream of though relates to enjoying the attention, since the fact that I am chanting makes me look like some "big devotee"? It is about chanting to seek attention and secretly enjoying being watched chanting. I think that these sorts of problems are mentioned in Madhurya-kadambini but in any case it is still a practical problem to rid oneself of the desire to be "seen" chanting. This is related to Advaita dasji's concluding point about Sadhu Baba. Sadhu Baba [Nikunja Gopal Gosvami, Advaita's guru) stated the following:

japArthe zrI-zrI harinAmera mAlA laiyA pathe ghATe hATe bAjAre loka saMgharSe pAdukA pAye, galpa juDiyA tAmbUla carvaNa karite karite calA niSedha. tAhAte zrI zrI nAmera maryAdA-hAnI haya nAme rucito kasmin kAle-o Ase nA baraM ahaM abhimAna bRddhi pAya evaM zrI zrI nAmera caraNe mahA aparAdha ghaTe – “It is forbidden to take one’s japa-mala out on the road, to the market, to the bathingplaces, to public gatherings, wearing shoes, talking to others or chewing betelnuts – it will be disrespectful to Sri Harinama. In this way ruci for harinama will never come, rather there will be an increase of ego and it will create a big offence at the lotus-feet of Sri Harinama.”

Wow, what can I say? What does this say about the behaviour of a number of ISKCON devotees who chant out on the road, in the marketplace, public gatherings, talking to others and so on? Of course it would be supremely pretentious of me to stand up and judge their chanting as pretentious and attention-seeking when my own is at fault, but can you just imagine? Whether such "public" chanting is pretentious or not, who could ever know? Psychological understandings would support the idea that such public chanting is meant for seeking attention no matter how unconscious it is. This only deeply illustrates for me the various problems that sadhakas come across in their journey to Gaurasundara's Golden Lotus Feet; we can make all sorts of preparations on a gross level but so many things happen on a subtle and unconscious level that we may not even be aware about.

What can we do but fling ourselves at the feet of Yugal-Kishor and hope for Their mercy and Their guidance? Perhaps that is the answer, just doing the best you can and leaving the results to you-know-Who.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Not A Lot

I'm aware that I haven't been updating this blog as much lately, though I suppose that's my own fault of course. Much of my time has been taken up in university studies and other side-projects, so much so that my spiritual readings is almost nil! A far cry from where I was about a year ago!

Although I do get to snatch bits and pieces from this scripture or that to keep me going, there's no denying that I find my current circumstances shameful. I have been bereft of Vaishnava association for so long, as well as the association of shastra. The only thing basically keeping me going is my own japa and meditation on Mahaprabhu's Golden Lotus Feet, which I cannot live without.

In any case, I haven't been to Vilasa-Kunja for MONTHS! I mainly post on Gaudiya-Repercussions every couple of days or so just for some light entertainment with some old friends, but it is still a far cry from pure and unadulterated association with strict Vaishnavas like GD used to be. I have noticed that the Gaudiya Wiki Kutir has been opened recently. I think it's great, the idea that formulated last year in Braja's mind has finally borne fruit and it looks like it will be a resounding success. For possibly the first time, there will be an Internet resource of GV philosophy just as Mahaprabhu left it. :-) Very happy about it.

I want to go to Navadvipa. That desire has been burning in my heart for nearly two years now. Burning burning, consuming me. I also want to have a respectful bath in Radha-kunda. Is that allowed? I'm not sure. There's so much I don't know.

I have a few chips on my shoulder about "Vaishnava association" that I may write about here in the coming days or weeks, some issues that have long been on my mind but rarely found expression, that have become especially poignant recently. In any case, I definitely need to keep reading to Caitanya-bhagavata just to satisfy my soul of it's constant and eternal yearning to be in Mahaprabhu's divine presence. Trust me, I have a few things that I want to talk to Him about such as this Vaishnava-sanga business. It's really quite saddening and I don't know how to resolve this with my own meagre knowledge of Vaishnava principles. The way it's left me feeling is "neither here nor there" and this is troubling to me. Nobody in all these months has ever sent me an email or anything asking "how are you" or anything like that.

Oh well, that is the way of this self-interested world. I never thought that it would affect the mentality of Vaishnavas but then I suppose this is the price you have to pay when you live in Kali-yuga. It's especially painful when you get a long knife driven deep into your back though. I don't think I'm ever gonna get over that. It's too painful to even think about. I didn't even intend to write any of this, but yet it's coming through. Perhaps this is prove that I need to write on this blog as a way of examining my own perceptions about spiritual issues as well as those issues that directly affect me such as malevolent "Vaishnava" association with all of it's back-stabbing.

And if you think that I can face Mahaprabhu dripping with blood, you have got to be kidding me!

New Photos

I took these photos at B. Manor last week. Just see how beautiful They are!

Ratha-yatra LONDON! (sort of)

I have felt very blessed recently. After suffering and then recuperating from a fever, I was unable to visit the temple for a long time. Still, whenever my parents went, they brought back the maha-prasad for me so I was never deprived. I was very thankful to eat such holy food, that has been touched by the Lips of Krishna.

Today (well, yesterday) was the famous London Ratha-yatra. I had been looking forward to it for weeks since this is one of the most enjoyable occasions in the year. From all over the country the devotees come from their temples to celebrate this big BIG Ratha-yatra, which has three carts for Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra, and the procession is from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Sqaure. Winding it's way through the heart of London with police escorts, it is indeed a very public and joyous occasion. Every year I volunteer my services and so I have a little administrative position in regards to crowd control.

Unfortunately I was not able to attend this one since I was not feeling very well in the morning. Add to that the fact that we have been enjoying (almost unbearable) heat this summer, it's probably likely that I would have suffered from nosebleeds or heat stroke. And of course the usual sunburn. Actually the sunburn thing is quite funny. We all have to wear tilak and so when I get sunburnt the tilak protects the small path of skin, so when I wash it off later it looks like I have a permanent tilak on my skin! My devotee friends used to laugh about this and say that I must be some big devotee! Nothing I did to prevent sunburn worked, I used to wear shades, bandanas, caps, but I still got sunburnt. Oh well...

So I was feeling very bad about not being able to attend this year's festival. Hey, it's ok, because there are 'localised' Ratha-yatras all over the country this summer so I could attend any one of them, but there is a special quality about the London celebration due to it's huge pomp and circumstance. I never got the chance to meet Gopal Krishna Gopswami either. Oh well, I heard he's left for Moscow by now. Anyhow I decided to go to the Manor. I was not very keen on attending the Manor as I figured that all the fun would be at Trafalgar Square. In any case, it turned out that the crowds from Traf. Sq. were actually returning to the Manor for darshan and prasad! Of course, because Bhaktivedanta Manor's deities are the most beautiful. ;-)

I don't usually take my japamala to the temple because I always get called away to do some seva or other so I don't get much time, but today I figured that it would be "relaxed" and I could just sit on a bench and chant away. In any case, I really enjoyed my japa today. Japa brings you the peace, but the mind is still very difficult to control Spiritualists all over the world would agree, concentrating the mind on the Lord is hard when the mind is accustomed to thinking of "material" things. It made me realise that I, like everyone, have a long way to go before I can satisfactorily concentrate my mind on Mahaprabhu's Golden Lotus Feet. Of course I can do it if I really concentrate, but to enjoy that kind of concentration takes practice.

So, funnily enough, as I was doing my japa, I decided that I would not do my usual seva of Temple Room crowd control but would help out in serving the prasad. They always have a few guys to do the crowd control anyway, even if everyone is at Traf. Sq., so I am usually superfluous these days unlike before when I was practically managing the whole thing. It turned out that this was a wise decision because they did not have enough people to help serve the prasad. Initially I was serving both the bhaji and the salad until someone came forward. I figured I wanted to serve something important like the bhaji because:

  1. My personal sense of spiritual ethics makes me determind to do my seva before I eat my own prasad. Unlike other people who satisfy themselves with food before serving or leave their seva halfway through to eat their food, I do not feel that Mahaprabhu would approve. I have felt this way every time in all the other religious organisations that I have attended. Throughout my life whenever I have done seva, there have been extremely rare exceptions where I did not perform my seva according to my own sense of spiritual ethics, usually due to circumstances. I do not intend to disparage anybody (even though they know who they are), but I do believe in good hard honest seva that will bring a smile to Mahaprabhu's face. Possibly a laugh, best not to expect too much. :-) What if Mahaprabhu was there and watching your every move? Do you think He would approve if you ate beforehand or left your seva midway?
  2. The second reason why I decided to serve bhaji is that it is an 'important' dish and it is unlikely that we would run out of supply. I really hate serving things like salad and puris which are things that run out and your seva has ended prematurely. I really get a satisfaction out of staying till the end to make sure that everyone has (possibly!) eaten before you and that I am more or less among the last to eat. I have observed that principle even in my seva in other organisations. I do believe that some kind of discipline is necessary to make spiritual progress. After all, there are very good reasons to get up early in the mornings and chant, as compared to the rest of the day!
I personally don't care if the food runs out before I eat, or even if the "good stuff" has finished and I am left with a few scraps of what is left over. I am left thinking that I have done my duty by Mahaprabhu and that I have acted rightly and honestly and I did it as best as I can. In fact, sometimes I even feel a little guilty because I am surely not the last to eat, there will always be someone after me who has come late or whatever. Some people even make sure that they take their share of the "good stuff" and keep it aside so that, no matter what, when their time comes to eat then they have a full plate of food. I'm not sure I agree with that either although I understand the rationale behind it. I have done this on several occasions myself even though I know that it is being deceptive to Mahaprabhu. In some cases my own spiritual discipline has relaxed in recent years especially when I am influenced by what other people do. I see so many devotees hoarding the goodies for themselves and I feel a sudden impulse to do the same thing. Of course this is only at festival times when they make a huge amount of good stuff anyway, but I don't believe in being overly greedy. If you absolutely must, yes, take a little aside and keep it for yourself if you really feel that you will die if you don't get a piece of that chocolate cake, but it's not good to get greedy and HOARD the stuff for yourself and your family because other people will be deprived of it. The general rule should be "first come first served", and I genuinely feel that this is Mahaprabhu's way in terms of honest ethics.

"So you didn't get any cake? Tough luck, and there's no reason why anyone should keep a piece for you either. Just because you think you're some kinda bigshot doesn't mean you can jump the queue or get the best foods. Go and join the queue like everyone else!"

Looks like I'm heading off on a tangent with my rant, so let me get back to it. So as I was serving the bhaji, it looked like some television crew came by and were filming us as we served. Hey, looks like I'm gonna be on TV! Although this is hardly likely and they were just taking some raw footage that would be edited, there's a chance that I could appear on TV serving the food! Woo hoo! I was unable to get any details about the programme or when it would be broadcast, so I'll ask a few people. But it's kinda funny, I had to think that this was Mahaprabhu's "reward" (I really hate saying that word*) for doing some good honest seva and trying something different instead of my usual kirtan/crowd control duties.

Funnily enough, the devotees from the Rathayatra had brought back some maha-prasad. I don't know how it happened or who took it or who gave it, but we ended up coming back with a plastic lunchbox full of chocolate cake! Wow! That's not the sort of thing I expect, but I really felt that this was some kinda consolation for not going to this year's Rathayatra. It made me feel that I don't have to go to Trafalgar Square to see Jagannatha; He is always with me.

Sei Gaura - Sei Krishna - Sei Jagannatha! the bhajan goes...


* I say that "rewards" are "bad" because I don't like the idea of taking "rewards" from Mahaprabhu even though it's perfectly possible that He gives them to me out of His own sense of grace. It goes along the lines of what Prabhupada used to say (and I paraphrase): "Service should be done without expectation of reward". The secret is that service done without expectation of reward brings the reward! After all, such service is ahaituky apratihata and performed with pure motivations with nothing except just the desire to serve, and this is what pleases Mahaprabhu! So it's perfectly natural that Mahaprabhu will reward the acts done without any agenda or motivation, and I don't like advertising myself as a recipient of Mahaprabhu's rewards regardless or whether or not He is giving them to me, but I personally don't like the idea that Mahaprabhu is "rewarding" me. I feel shy about it.

But I should actually talk about that some more in separate blogs when I have time. By that, I mean that I would like to talk more about seva and the correct attitude to performing it. "10 Ways To Make Mahaprabhu Smile" or something.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Zoroastrian Insights

I'm enjoying my book very much. I was curious to find out about Zoroastrianism because I had heard little bits and pieces about it from here and there, but was never properly introduced to clear and systemtic knowledge of the religion itself. This book doesn't provide that so my search will still continue, but it does provide some pretty interesting insights.

The general idea is this; Iran, formely Persia, has a very long and very rich history that abounds in culture, art, literature, drama and so on, and these pre-Islamic influences still exist in modern-day Iran despite the Islamisation of the country. This subject has such magnitude that it deserves to be the subject of a doctoral thesis instead of a blog, but I'll try to describe as best as I can.

A general understanding that is overtaking my current view on religion and spirituality is the influence of surrounding culture on religious evolution. This was the subject of many a discussion (and argument) on the erstwhile Gaudiya Discussions; although I could never understand or appreciate such points due to my faith and loyalty in remaining true to the orthodox principles, I do not feel intellectually honest if I dimiss the very possibility of cultural and timely influences on the reinterpretation and renewal of faith. These are the things that Jagat and Nitai used to talk about or insinuate, but I could never understand or appreciate. Perhaps as I grow in my own spiritual understandings I may have something to speak on this matter in the future. In any case, the principles hold true for pre-Islamic Persia which followed the Zoroastrian religion. Kriwaczek's book is a "personal odyssey" and his travels to research the influences of Zoroastrianism are very interesting to read. The basic premise is thus:

"Every country I had ever visisted in the area was overwhelmigly Muslim - in the case of Afghanistan and Iran, Islam was the official state religion even back in the sixties. Yet nobody could have helped noticing an undercurrent of something else - hints and indications that behind the sincere dedication to the Qur`an there lay a hidden stratum of belief, something understood but never mentioned and certainly not to be admitted to an outsider - the spirit of Zarathustra, still powerful after thirteen hundred years of Islam." (Prologue)

Fascinating, huh? The first chapter among other things dicusses a trip to a local Iranian market where souvenirs and general chintz have sun-symbols on the, which apparently appears to be a cultural icon. Asing the vendors what the solar representation stood for was useless, "It's just a sun." Seeing a similar solar insignia above the entrance of a well-known Islamic college - symmetrical tigers chasing deer with a pair of suns above each tiger - provoked a fascination of how such isignia exists in a country following a religion that abhors the representation of living things! Guides explained that the tigers were actually lions who represented Hazrat Ali (whom the Shias believe to be the true successor of Prophet Muhummad) aka the 'Lion of Allah'. The truth is that the sun is a symbol of Mithra who is viewed in Zoroastrianism as an intermediary between man and God. This is probably why solar symbols are present on other Iranian sovenir memorabilia too; Kriwaczek describes it as "yet another sign that Islam in the Iranian world is like a woman's plain chador worn over party finery, a cloak that covers, disguises, or incorporates much traditionally Iranian, pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian belief."

Fascinating stuff! Although I've read a bit further and uncovered even more fascinating stuff, I couldn't help wondering how this stands in the face of today's Iran. In the grand scheme of things, the reign of the Ayatollahs and their Islamic Revolution right down to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be seen in the light of history as "blips". Kriwaczek uncovers things that are true on many levels. Leopards do not change their spots so easily; several hundred (thousand?) years of Zoroastrianism cannot easily be done away with to follow a new religion called Islam, which is characterised as Muhummad's "desert faith". There are so many interesting elemets to this odyssey of Kriwaczek's that I cannot help but continue to read eagerly. I haven't described a pinch of the stuff I've read so far!