From the ISKCON Vaishanava Reservoir of Knowledge...
(Abridged From the ISKCON Publications)
Chanting the Holy Names
Chanting is done in two situations: in kirtana, or group singing, and in japa, or private soft chanting.
Ruchi, the stage of deeply relishing the holy name of Krishna, has two levels. On the first, one has taste for kirtana only when the person leading is an expert singer and the instruments are all in tune and are being played by experts. On the second level, one has a taste for kirtana regardless of of the musical expertise of the person leading the kirtana as long as the name is being chanted by devotees who are strictly following the process of loving service to Krishna. One must push oneself to the higher level of appreciating the holy names. This comes with the understanding that the musical accompaniment is just a vehicle in which the holy names arrive, and that one should not be attached to the vehicle but to the passenger in the vehicle: Krishna in the form of His names. So with practice one should focus on the holy names and not be concerned with the musical abilities of those performing the kirtana. When a person rises to the higher level, it is hard to relate to someone who says something like, "That was an ecstatic kirtana!" (which indicates that some other kirtana wasn't ecstatic).
When you sit down to relax your body and chant japa, tell the mind in a positive way to focus on the sound. If you repeat this several times, the mind will obey. With proper desire and understanding, our mind will naturally be attracted to the holy name, and we will swim in an ocean of the nectar. It is important to be strict about not using the japa time for any other activity. Japa should be done singularly in the proper mood of meditating on the Lord's name and not be mixed with socializing or performing mundane chores while doing the japa. Also, absorbing yourself in Krishna-Katha (topics of Krishna) before you take rest at night will make your mind and brain process Krishna-Katha in your sleep, and you will likely wake up thinking about Krishna, and your subtle body will be purified. You will be in an ideal position to do your morning japa and start the day in His devotional service.
Approaching the holy names with care during kirtana and japa will bring us to understand how simple and sublime spiritual life can be.
Diksha without Tapa
In 1066, northern French invaded Britain and defeated King Harold. The victorious William the Conqueror commissioned the ‘Doomsday Book’, a record of every village and field in the conquered territory. He then proceeded to apportion those villages and huge tracts of land to all his friends, bestowing upon them ranks and titles according to their respective holdings. Thus the English aristocracy was born, with all the Lords, Earls, Dukes, Barons, and Viscounts. Even today, nearly a millennium later, a mere two hundred English families still own half of the land in Britain.
Over the centuries, many of the smaller aristocrats sold off their lands, holding on to only their hereditary titles. Still later, even the titles were sold, bestowing upon the purchaser the distinction of a powerful traditional name, but with no factual wealth or power. Thus today, for a mere $5000, you can become known officially as Baron Such-and-Such, baron of three villages – but without owning the villages. You will receive an attractive, elaborately handwritten declaration scribed on vellum, and will have the legal right, under British law, to have others refer to you by your new name and sign yourself as such on all official documents. Yet as far the land ownership originally conferred on its owner, you will see none of that. No serfs will doff their caps as you ride your white horse into “your village” and you will not get any tithes of the harvest either. Indeed you will not have any power over anything or anybody, except the power to look up from your sofa and gaze at your nicely framed certificate proclaiming you a member of the English aristocracy.
Why this lesson in history? Because just as powerless peerages are being sold on the internet, conferring nothing on their owner but a new name and smug satisfaction, so is diksa now being sold for pocket change – conferring upon the recipient, only a notion of spiritual or religious attainment.
Tapa, or personal austerity, is said to be the factual spending power of spiritually progressive people. It is the “wealth of the Brahmins”. Diksha is the process of being enlightened with transcendental knowledge and committing oneself to the spiritual path under the guidance of an authentic teacher, a guru. In classical Vaishvanism, the guru does not award diksha unless the prospective disciple has demonstrated some personal tapa. Rising early, bathing, eating frugally from a diet regulated by vegetables, fruit and grains, chanting Lord’s holy names according to a numerical vow, engaging in menial service for the guru, abandoning sinful acts, and placing oneself at the beck and call of the spiritual master – all these are prerequisites for diksha. Without tapa, actual diksha cannot take place. Even if the external formularies are conducted and titles awarded, no substantial inner transformation actually happens. Now a days insincere gurus and uncommitted followers find each other and diksha is given without tapa. After giving diksha, the initiated devotees are abandoned and the normal levels of affectionate guardianship offered by the guru to the disciple are missing. Unfortunately, like those barons and dukes with framed certificates, those who have bought their tapa-less diksha, may find that all that has changed is their name.
Science Vs Scientism
Atheists commonly accuse theists of having created the idea of God to satisfy certain psychological needs. A more reasonable person, they say, can do without this crutch and instead learn from the cold, hard facts of science, whose findings inevitably lead us to conclude there's no God.
Atheists, however, are not free of biases and psychological needs, and these influence both their experimental findings and their attitude toward various scientific theories. Though they may flatter themselves, they are not immune to seeing things the way they want. The theory of Darwinian evolution is a case in point.
"Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist," says Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University. For those with atheistic tendencies, Darwin was a savior. He made it possible for the scientists to do away with the need for God. His theory supposedly shows that all life forms evolved through strictly mechanistic processes.
Evolution is really the only alternative to the idea of creation. Either someone created this world or it evolved on its own. That's why Darwinian evolution is so important to atheists, and they'll do anything to defend it. But is it truly defensible?
In The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote, "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modification, my theory would absolutely break down."
Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box and a pioneer in the Intelligent Design movement, writes, "To Darwin, the cell was a 'black box'-its inner workings were utterly mysterious to him. Now the black box has been opened up and we know how it works. Applying Darwin's test to the ultra-complex world of molecular machinery and cellular systems that have been discovered over the past 40 years, we can say that Darwin's theory has 'absolutely broken down.'''
Behe has shown that many mechanisms in the cell are "irreducibly complex," that is, they could not have been built step by step, as required by Darwinism. Rather, they clearly indicate design-and a designer. Behe stresses that his arguments are strictly scientific, though they may have theological implications. (The same can be said about the Big Bang theory, which scientists accept.)
A survey in Nature found that only 7% of members of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) believe in a personal God. Atheistic scientists have powerful influence today, and they will go to great lengths to discredit any evidence that casts doubts on Darwinism. Sometimes they are quite open about revealing their motives. Several years ago, geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote in the New York Review of Books, "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, . . . in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism."
We shouldn't be fooled by the popular image of scientists as impartial seekers of the truth. There's a difference between science (the search for truth, wherever that search may lead) and scientism (a search that precludes any supernatural explanations). The open-minded scientist can discover that, as the saying goes, "Within the breast of nature throbs the heart of God."
A Vedic Perspective on Buddhism
Lord Buddha, or Bhagwan Buddh as we call Him, rejected the Vedas and denied the existence of God. In its simplest form, His teachings are summed up in Four Noble Truths: existence is full of suffering; suffering is traceable to desire; desire can be transcended, leading to nirvana, or cesation of material existence. The means to transcendence is the Eight-fold Path of proper views, action, resolve, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. These truths, though spoken by the Supreme Himself as Lord Buddha and though clearly derived from His Vedic Literature, were expertly presented without citing scripture or mentioning God.
When Lord Buddha appeared some 2500 years ago, materialists were using the Vedas as a crutch by interpreting narrow exceptions permitted in the Vedas as the rule. As an example, widespread animal killing was prevalent at the time. By defying Vedic texts and advocating ahimsa, or non-voilence, He pulled the rug on scripture thumping meat eaters. Atheists or materialists cannot by their nature understand or surrender to God directly. But they can sometimes identify with godly qualities like humility, pridelessness, nonviolence, tolerance, and simplicity. Defying the Vedas and denial of the existence of God were calculated moves to secure Him the devotion of His atheistic audiences. With their minds emptied of scriptural misconceptions and fear of the supreme authority, Lord Buddha's followers were ready to give their full attention to His teachings. While denying God, the lawmaker, He inculcated within His followers a respect for His laws of karma and reincarnation. Thus concealing His identity as God, He guided His followers on practicing godly qualities thereby gradually bringing them closer to qualifying for direct knowledge of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Lord Buddha taught His followers that the object of meditation was not service to the Lord but shunyata, emptiness or void. Like atheism, voidism is a predisposition of grossly materialistic people. Void meditation may suffice while we practice the Eightfold Path of proper behavior to rid ourselves of the activities that drown us in the darker regions of samsara. After that, from a position of detachment and relative freedom from suffering we are set to make further advancement. "At the ultimate stage," Srila Praphupad says of the Buddhist Path, "one has to accept the Lord and become His devotee". The meditation must eventually turn from the void to the astounding humility, nonviolence, and mercy of their teacher, Lord Buddha, the Supreme Person Himself.
Hope is the recognition within the human heart that something better is attainable. By our nature we are meant to be full of hope (hopeful). Hopes can be broadly classified into two types: spiritual and material.
In the Bhagwad Gita the Lord talks about people "baffled in their hope" and about those "entangled in a network of hopes and absorbed in lust and anger." Hope for any sort of material gain, whether fame, fortune, power, success, or relationships, is like a noose that fetters the soul. We are meant for spiritual hope, but, bewildered by material life, our hopes are now material, and so we are subject to waves of dissatisfaction. One who hopes materially, Krishna says, will be anxious, troubled, and miserable - in a word defeated.
The first step in transforming material hope to spiritual hope is to see that Krishna, in His form as time, will take everything material away from us. By His design, old age and death will rob us of all our material possessions. Through knowledge of our eternal identity - small servants of God - by God's grace we can stop hoping for things destined to perish. With knowledge of our true identity firmly in place, material desires appeal less and less, and so material hopes, which spring from material desires, lessen. We can feel our intelligence become pacified and our priorities rearranged. Detachment releases us from slaving for trite things and from pre-occupation with the past or the future. We accept His mercy in whatever form it takes.
Faith is the unflinching trust in something sublime. Shvetaasvatara Upanishad (6.23) states, "Only unto those great souls who have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed."
Hope is transformed from material to spiritual by the association of sadhus and pure devotees of the Lord. By following the rules and regulations of the bhakti, fixing our minds on the Lord and serving Him in whatever way we can, our inane material hopes quiet down. As the spiritual master's words personally and intimately touch and convince us, the distance between Krishna and us gradually closes. Spiritual hope prepares us to experience divine things. By its mystery we possess the promise of love for Krishna no matter what happens. This hope is the difference between spiritual life and spiritual death. Spiritual hope saves us, material hope kills us.
Nine Processes of Devotional Service (Bhakti Yoga)
1. Shravanam or Hearing
The sounds we hear shape our awareness and understanding of the world and people around us. The sounds we allow to penetrate our consciousness play an enormous role in our experience of life. Sound also plays a major role in shaping our spiritual consciousness. Consider the beautiful bhajans (devotional songs) that have enhanced temple pujas from time immemorial; the sermons, bringing the words of Bhagwad Gita and other scriptures into relevant and personal focus; the murmur of the Mahamantra counted on the beads.
Hearing spiritual sounds is a powerful way to purify our consciousness and awaken our love for God. One type of spiritual sound we can hear is mantras. The Vedic scriptures recommend the chanting of mantras to elevate consciousness. Mantra literally means "to free the mind", and the purpose of mantra is to clear the mind by focusing on the spiritual sound. Chanting of the Mahamantra is a calling out to Krishna " dear Krishna, please engage me in Your service".
Spiritual sound is so powerful that one doesn't even have to comprehend its meaning to benefit from hearing it. When one links his ears to give aural reception to the transcendental vibrations, he can quickly become purified and cleansed in the heart. Hearing in Bhakti Yoga is the simplest way to spiritual advancement. Yet hearing is a challenge for most of us, with a racing mind and a limited attention span. We strain for added divine revelations. The ancient Sanskrit texts explain that our material desires hinder the benefit of hearing spiritual sounds. A heart congested with material contaminants has a difficult time experiencing the joy. But when we are free of our material desires, the sound of God's name invokes deep transcendental joy in the heart.
While hearing spiritual sound even without comprehension is beneficial, hearing transforms into realization when we comprehend and act accordingly. As we saturate our consciousness with spiritual sound, we restore our understanding of ourselves in relation to God, to the world, and to the people around us. This understanding protects us from the pains of life and helps us to be of real value in the lives of others.
2. Kirtanam or Chanting
The first process is Hearing; then comes Kirtana. The relationship between the two is direct and intimate. To properly glorify the Lord we must first understand Him through proper hearing. Hearing as devotional service includes receiving guidance from scripture, spiritual masters, and other devotees of Krishna. Fortified by hearing from spiritual authorities, one begins Kirtana.
One form of kirtana is chanting of mantras. Chanting should be mindful - done with an awareness that the words are sacred and pleasing to God. We must also be mindful to chant not for material benefit, but as an offering of love through words.
The solitary chanting of a mantra is called japa. During one's quiet hours of japa one gains a great deal of purification necessary to approach God. Another form of kirtana is congregational singing, or sankirtana. Devotees gather daily in temples to perform sankirtana before the Deities, singing and playing musical instruments for the pleasure of the Lord.
Third form of kirtana is speaking about spiritual topics. One way to do this is to read the words of the revealed scripture and spiritual authorities. An essential component of kirtana is to capture without deviation the spirit and message of Krishna's pastimes and teachings, and this is best accomplished when using the descriptions given to us by pure souls who can speak of such things with first-hand realization.
An essential ingredient in any of the nine processes of bhakti-yoga is humility. Lord Chaitanya spoke about humility in relationship to kirtana: One must chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, considering oneself lower than the straw in the street, more tolerant than the tree, and ready to offer all respect to others.
3. Vishnu-samarnam or Remembering the Lord
Remembrance is the third process of devotional service. On the most basic level, remembrance may be the easiest way to worship the Lord. No need for elaborate rituals and paraphernalia, no need for a congregation or even a companion. Remembrance can be a simple, unadorned journey of the heart back to the most beloved friend we all have. Or it might be a flash of warning, an awareness that our actions will pain Krishna in some way. Or it could be the bittersweet realization that all in this world is temporary, and that that is the mercy of the Lord. In countless ways we can remember Him.
Implicit in the concept of remembrance is forgetfulness. If remembrance means coming back to our personal experience of God, the there must have been some departure. This departure, this forgetting, is the main attribute of living beings in this world and the cause of our pain. Forgetfulness may begin as neglect of spiritual practices, a wandering of mind, a careless attitude. Then other things seems to rise in importance: wealth, prestige, family, education. We compromise spiritual principles as our heart hardens and turns away from the comfort of our natural servitude.
We might reach a point where remembering Krishna brings pain. When we play the game of manipulating our world, squeezing out pleasure for ourselves, we would do our best to avoid contact with the Ruler as acknowledging Krishna would ruin our fun. Yet at times we may notice a stirring, a sense of some truth forgotten. We may despair that life seems hurried and empty. Forgetting God is truly unnatural for the soul and creates varying degrees of agony. And the more we have banished Him from our consciousness, the less able we are to find a remedy for the pain. A new car, a new romance, an exotic vacation does not bring us any pleasure.
We can help prevent such a situation by restructuring our lives to provide us with constant reminders. Ritual and congregation play an important role. If our day begins with sacred rituals - chanting mantras and prayers, reading and discussing scriptures - each day gives us the opportunity to remember. If we set up a ritual of offering all we eat to Krishna, and offering prayers of gratitude before we eat, we are again reminded of Him. If we surround ourselves with like-minded people who share our passion for serving Krishna, their energy and devotion replenish and inspire us.
As athletes grow stronger through training, our ability to remember Krishna can strengthen through daily training. Eventually, remembrance becomes our normal condition. The state of constant remembrance is called Samadhi. Samadhi need not be passive, a physical withdrawal from the world as one becomes immersed in thoughts of Krishna. Rather, it is the awakened realization that all in this world is but a reflection of Him. Everything belongs to Him and can be used to serve and praise Him.
Remembering Krishna at the time of death is a good fortune. But the opportunity to meditate on the Lord at the end of life does not come to everyone. Remembrance of Krishna is possible only for a soul who has purified himself by practicing Krishna consciousness in devotional service. Death can be an extremely painful and difficult moment, and the likelihood of remembering Krishna at such a time depends on His grace and our practice.
Pada-Sevanam means "serving the feet" of the Krishna. Why feet? To appraoch a person's feet is a sign of humility. Even today, in India children learn to touch their parent's feet as a token of respect.
Pada-Sevanam comes after the devotional practices of hearing about Krishna, chanting about Him and remembering Him. It is a logical progression. After hearing and repeating someone's glories, we naturally remember that person and in time seek the intimacy of service.
Pada-Sevanam offers a tremendous spiritual lesson: It means approaching the Lord from the most humble position, as supplicants at His feet.
5. Archanam or worshiping the Deity
Few experiences are more beautiful than the early morning ceremony, mangal-aarti. Worshippers gather in the stillness that precedes dawn to sing devotional songs in praise of the Supreme Lord. The focus of the ceremony is the Deity form of the Lord, a physical manifestation of God Himself. During mangla-aarti, the soft glow of the deities dispels the night's darkness, as a pujari offers before them a succession of auspicious objects such as incense and flowers. Voices blend in ancient melody, accompanied by kartals and a drum.
Vedic scriptures prescribe Archanam, worship of Krishna in His deity form as a means of developing a relationship with the God as a person. Like all processes of devotional service, deity worship combines an external ritual with internal meditation. All the attention to every detail to perform the ceremony properly helps train the mind that God is a person. If you are know you are disappointing someone with your tardiness or carelessness, then you develop a heightened awareness of that person's needs. Likewise when you please someone with your ardent attention, you bask in the pleasure of his delight. The details of deity worship become part of a sweet exchange with the Lord.
Deity worship in the temple is highly ritualized. One can, however, become enamored by the rituals and lose the internal devotion. But heart must accompany actions. The deepest element of worship is loving surrender, relinquishing the postures that make us deity.
Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of archanam is that it employs the four processes of devotional service discussed above: hearing about Krishna, chanting His names, remembering Him, and serving His lotus feet. Deity worship always included chanting, and chanting allows for hearing. When standing in Krishna's presence, we naturally remember Him. And service to His lotus feet truly takes on meaning when we see them beautifully decorated with sandalwood and flowers.
Prayer (or Vandanam in Sanskrit) is the sixth of the nine processes of devotional service.
Prayer is often the very first way children learn about God. Parents teach their children simple prayers for bedtime or mealtimes. These are simple prayers of gratitude, prayers for the welfare of loved ones, and, of course, prayers for some coveted desire to be fulfilled. They set up theological principles such as reincarnation and Krishnaloka.
While each of us has a unique encounter with the world, prayer invites communication that supersedes material circumstances. Prayer in its most lovely form reawakens our deepest, most primal sentiments and longings. Prayer articulates knowledge that seems to arise from somewhere beyond this life's recollections; that is why the words from a prayer written centuries ago can often feel like the most sincere expression of our own spiritual longing.
Often our prayers are petitional in nature. Sometimes we are blessed with the answer to our prayer and sometimes we are blessed by the apparent rejection of our prayers. We must remember that just as a parent denies the child the pleasures that could bring the child danger or pain, so does Krishna sometimes seems to ignore our prayers. When tragedies enter our lives, as they do in this world of unpredictable misery, we often turn to prayer with an unimagined intensity. And often there is no relief from pain. But that may be His point. We love the people and things of this world so deeply, that we forget that the most pure and satisfying form of love is meant for Krishna. This of course is not a small realization, and it is impossible to superficially adopt. But from time to time Krishna may bring it out through apparent tragedy. It certainly doesn't feel like a blessing, but it is nothing less than the chance to return to Him who loves us best.
7. Devotional Service (or Dasyam in Sanskrit) is the seventh process of devotional service.
Dasyam refers to a heartfelt yearning to be of personal service to the Supreme Lord, Shri Krishna. To attain servitude to the Lord, we must come to know this magnificent person and understand His desires. The Ramayana offers an extraordinary example of personal service. The monkey warrior Hanuman scours the earth and leaps the ocean to find Sita. Lord Rama did not have to instruct Hanuman or offer endless encouragement for Hanuman to find Sita. He did it out of pure love for the Lord.
Service to Lord Krishna is described as both the means and the end. However the Vaishanava view is that while we are under the spell of this world, we cannot presume that we are qualified to be Krishna's servant. So for us Dasyam means to serve the Lord by serving those who serve Him. That is one reason we need a Guru to attain Dasyam.
8. Spiritual Friendship (or Sakhyam in Sanskrit) is the eighth of the nine processes of devotional service.
Two men sit in front of a TV set watching a football game and eating, drinking and shouting on the top of their lungs; two ladies get together over lunch at a trendy restaurant, discussing the details of their lives, letting their problems tumble over the empathy of the other; two kids play kickball at the school yard while sounding off the insanity of teachers and other useless adults, are three examples of material friendships. It solidifies our sense of belonging, though none of us belong here at all. It validates emotions normal only to those who have forgotten their spiritual identity.
As soon as the spiritual entity increases awareness of its distinct nature, the casual rituals of material friendship grow unappealing. Most material friendships depend on some sense of "us and them" for adhesion. On a spiritual level, there is no "them". We are all spiritual entities struggling to make sense of our material condition. The material friendships increase the pleasures of the material body and mind. But the spiritual friendship with the Lord aims to increase the spiritual pleasure of the soul.
Sakhyam is both a means to purify the heart and an activity of the purified soul. As the friendship with the Lord deepens, the purified souls enjoy their friensdhip with Krishna because they have no desire for anything else. We are unable to act with this full spiritual consciousness as yet, but that does not mean that we have no means of friendship with the Lord. After all, who is still with us when the ball game is over, when the restaurants close, when the mind begins to fail, when we leave the body at death? It is Lord Krishna, who is always with us. Now that's a friend! Recognizing that the Lord has already extended Himself to us, it is left to us to reciprocate His friendship.
9. Atma-Nivedanam or full surrender to the Lord constitutes the ninth process of devotional service.
This process incorporates the other eight processes of Devotional Service to the Lord. Surrendering one's mind, body and words, and tithing can help loosen our grip on our material well-being. But the money must be given to someone who will truly spend it in the service of the Lord. If one supports the activities of the pure-hearted souls, one will receive some benefits.
To summarize, the nine processes of Krishna Consciousness are hearing and chanting about the Lord, serving His lotus feet, worshiping Him, offering Him prayers, becoming His servant, becoming His friend and surrendering everything to Him.
To a pure devotee, developing the love of God through bhakti is an end in itself, and not a means to something else
Four Yogas of Bhagwad Gita
Lord Krishna summarizes the various forms of yoga in the Bhagwad Gita's eighteen chapters. In essence there are four kinds: Raja-yoga involves sitting postures, breath control, and meditation and is popular today in the form of hath yoga. Bhakti-yoga is the yoga of devotion, Karma-yoga the yoga of selfless action, and Gyaan-yoga the yoga of knowledge.
While the paths differ, their fundamental goal is the same: to realize that God is the core of our being and that life is meant for dedicating ourselves to His service. Yoga, in all its varieties, seeks to bring its practitioners beyond the usual identification with the body and the mind, situating one in transcendence. Thus pandit Patanjali codified a means by which one could master one's senses, ultimately leading to the goal of yoga. His method is a type of Raja-yoga. But the other yoga systems are more direct, fostering relationship and even intimacy with God. And of all the yogas, Bhakti is the best, because it puts its practitioners in an immediate relationship with God in His topmost personal form, as Shri Krishna, thus achieving the goal of yoga in an easy and natural way.