Practical Spirituality – The regulative principles
Everything in this universe, except for the Supreme Lord, has to follow rules and perform the prescribed duties. But Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita that though he is not bound by any rules, he still executes his duties so as to set an example to all the souls.
BG 3.22: O son of Pṛthā, there is no work prescribed for Me within all the three planetary systems. Nor am I in want of anything, nor have I a need to obtain anything — and yet I am engaged in prescribed duties.
BG 3.23: For if I ever failed to engage in carefully performing prescribed duties, O Pārtha, certainly all men would follow My path.
Spiritual practice can be a different experience depending on which path one takes. In general, the best path to take would be and should be the easiest one, is it not? This applies to spirituality as well. But easy does not mean “no rules”. There is a common misconception that is going around that you can do anything you want as long as you say a few prayers and ask for forgiveness. Some even go to the extent to say “Oh, Krishna is like my friend. He just wants us to enjoy like he did!” There are people who even seek to justify their bad habits using Vedic philosophy.
A story I heard: A Krishna devotee was visiting a home once. The lady of the house, during the course of her discussions, mentioned that her son was a good ‘naishtika brahmachari’ and a pious person but he smokes a lot. She requested this devotee to go and talk her son to put some sense in to him. The devotee went outside to the back of the house and found the lady’s son puffing out smoke like a steam engine. When he asked the son: “Sir, why do you smoke this much? Do you not know this is bad for health?” The son replied, “I am not smoking, my body is smoking!”
So, this kind of dangerous ideas can be the result of unguided, self improvised spiritual practice. Vedic Spirituality is not a simple “Be good, Get good” scheme. It is not a way to get material wealth and happiness through ‘grace of God’. Certainly, it is not wrong if someone prays to Krishna for protection in dire times or relief during extremely difficult financial or family situations, but treating Krishna or any of the devatas as “order suppliers” should be strongly discouraged and avoided.
Let’s get back to the topic. For any aspiring, sincere spiritualist, there are 4 basic regulatory principles that must be followed. These rules were followed as a matter of habit in the past, but Srila Prabhupada gave them prominence since he was preaching in a place which was abound with the below practices.
1) No meat eating (meat, fish eggs etc.)
2) No intoxication (smoking, drinking liquor, coffee and tea (yes, you read it right) etc.)
3) No gambling
4) No illicit sex
We will look at these one by one in detail in the order shown.
Before we get in to the details, here are some statements to consider.
From Śrī Īśopaniṣad:
Iso 1: Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for himself, which are set aside as his quota, and one should not accept other things, knowing well to whom they belong.
From Upadeśāmṛta (The Nectar of Instruction) of Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī:
NoI 1: A sober person who can tolerate the urge to speak, the mind’s demands, the actions of anger and the urges of the tongue, belly and genitals is qualified to make disciples all over the world.
I will leave these at this point. We will come back to these as and when needed.
Now, for the first rule… being a vegetarian. There will be so many people who might have raised their eyebrows at the other rules, but I am sure the first one comes as no surprise.
Why vegetarianism? For spiritual practice, one of the goals is going beyond the control of the 3 modes of nature. But the first step is to be in the mode of goodness… sattva guna. The other two modes of nature are mode of passion (Rajas) and mode of ignorance (Tamas).
Ok. Quote time.
BG 9.26: If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.
BG 17.7: Even the food each person prefers is of three kinds, according to the three modes of material nature. The same is true of sacrifices, austerities and charity. Now hear of the distinctions between them.
BG 17.8: Foods dear to those in the mode of goodness increase the duration of life, purify one’s existence and give strength, health, happiness and satisfaction. Such foods are juicy, fatty, wholesome, and pleasing to the heart.
BG 17.9: Foods that are too bitter, too sour, salty, hot, pungent, dry and burning are dear to those in the mode of passion. Such foods cause distress, misery and disease.
BG 17.10: Food prepared more than three hours before being eaten, food that is tasteless, decomposed and putrid, and food consisting of remnants and untouchable things is dear to those in the mode of darkness.
You with me still? Good.
Basically, to get situated in the mode of goodness, one must avoid eating foods that are detrimental to such a progress. As such, non-vegetarian items are not categorized as ‘sattvic food’. There are several reasons why this is stressed by the Acharyas. I am not going to go in detail… but will briefly touch upon them.
There is no need to kill animals for food when the same is accomplished through grains, vegetables, fruits and milk. It is quite understandable that this is not possible for people who are desert nomads or Arctic Eskimos. But for people in civilization, where there is plenty of the vegetarian stuff available, to be eating meat is sheer indulgence which takes the animals for granted as being at our disposal. There will be some people who claim animals don’t have souls and hence ‘killing’ them is fine. That is very a foolish argument, as are the claims of some people that we cannot get all nutrition from vegetarian food.
Does this mean it is ok to gorge down on vegetarian food and kill plants as well as trees at our will?
No. Absolutely not! Here is where we refer to the quoted verse of Śrī Īśopaniṣad. Everything belongs to the Supreme Lord but we are allowed our quota for sustenance. Nothing more, nothing less.
There was a question from David on this topic. It is true that many vegetarians take pride in being so, and put down the other side. I was one too, to be honest. I have just one verse to quote on that.
Srimad Bhagavad Gita Canto 3, Verse 13
bhunjate te tv agham papa
ye pacanty atma-karanat
“The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.”
This is a direct statement from Krishna which is self explanatory. Anything that is prepared as food and eaten without offering it to the Lord is basically sinful. So, even it is vegetarian food, if it is not first offered as ‘nivedya’ and consumed later as ‘prasadam’, it is sinful. Obviously, non-vegetarian food cannot be offered as nivedya (as well as preparations with onion, garlic, mushrooms etc. but more on this later.) This concept of ‘prasadam’ is directly tied to the verse which mentions about controlling the urges of the tongue.
Trust me, in the current world, being a vegetarian is an austerity where one has to be very vigilant in what one eats. But I have seen the effects of food on one’s mental disposition, behavior and mood first hand as well as heard of the same from many others.
I will stop here for this article. In the next installment, we will look in what the other regulative principles are meant to accomplish.
Practical Spirituality – Laying the Path
I tried to complete this article thrice before, but somehow or the other it didn’t turn up in a way I wanted. I have rewritten this article thrice. And yet I am not satisfied with the outcome. It just makes me wonder if my current disposition is so bad, because of all the traveling I have been doing and the food that I am eating. Being a very strict vegetarian, having proper food is an austerity, almost a penance, while on travel, especially to a place where not even plain rice is vegetarian, except at the few Indian restaurants. My teacher on several occasions had mentioned that not only the food we eat, but also the person cooking it, the person who bought the raw materials and so on, all have influence on our mood, behavior and disposition. Guess I am having that experience firsthand. So, I am leaving this to my ‘flow’ of thoughts.
I was having lunch with a group of engineers who were discussing some highly sophisticated technology stuff and as the lunch began to take effect, the topic drifted to focus on a guy who claimed he was into hatha-yoga for the last one year and on how it has been extremely beneficial for him. And as the initial conversation was winding down to the normal ‘yeah, yeah, that’s right…’ kind of semi-disinterested agreement, one person quipped that “yoga is all about breathing, you know”. I suppressed a ‘whoa! Hold on!’ and continued spooning the food in to me.
Several years ago, when I was about 20 or so, we had arranged a family pilgrimage to several temples in Kerala. We were about 11 people in a van and in due course of time, our conversation came to discussing about how my studies with Bhagavad Gita were progressing and what impact it was making on me. Not many of the ‘elders’ really gave any importance to what I had to say, but one of my uncles suddenly turned to me and said “All this is not required. Just chant ‘Om Namo Bhagavate Rudraya’… all bad things will go away, you will study well, get good money’… “. I was kind of amused but had to resist the urge to debate him, merely out of respect to an ‘elder’ person.
I even had my father yell at me once because he thought I was getting too much in to ‘this unproductive stuff’. He is supposedly a very religious person and he boomed, “This stuff is for people above the age of 50, when they get all the time they need for this kind of time pass!” I didn’t mean to be disrespectful but I shot back. “Appa, YOU are above 50. I don’t see you spending time on this ‘stuff’. Instead, you just sit around when you DO get time and watch only the stupid mega-serials.” That stopped him short. He glared at me for a few moments and walked away.
Couple of lessons learnt from the above incidents:
1) The tendency to show that ‘oh, I know something’ about a topic, especially when it is related to spirituality, is pretty hard for a normal person to resist.
2) It is only by sustained practice and ‘living the philosophy’ can we actually hope to transform anyone’s opinion. Even then, there is a risk that it might only inflame anger as well as enviousness and not acceptance.
I just wanted to share these with you all before actually getting to the topic at hand.
So, we see people going to temples, churches and mosques every day. We see them immersed in prayer, with some people weeping, some serene and a few whose prayer style borders on eccentricity. But I was standing at a restaurant counter, when a man came and stood next to me. After giving the token, he kept smiling and talking to himself. After a minute or so, he took his mobile out. I saw the wallpaper was a nice picture of Tirupati Balaji. He started mumbling something, touched the mobile to his eyes, and kept it back in to his shirt pocket. He did this a couple of times until his food packet got delivered.
Is this man spiritual? Some might think of him as a weirdo. Others might marvel at his ‘devotion’.
If you are born in a Brahmin family, or grown up around one, you would have seen the myriad of pujas and homams (fire sacrifices) being conducted. The young kids do sandhya-vandanam meticulously and the morning and evening times resonate with chanting of the vedic hymns. It is really an indescribable experience. May be not these days, but the families usually follows so many rules, Acharam and Anushtanam, and what not, right from the time of waking up to eating and sleeping.
Are these (we?) ‘brahmins’ spiritual? Also, some think of the myriad of rituals and hymn chanting as a waste of time. Others think of it as a necessary burden for the discipline that spiritual practice requires.
I used to work as a teaching assistant during my Master’s course. I had this boy who came to the class and instead of listening to what I was saying, was busy reading the bible. This repeated itself over the entire semester. I did try to tell him subtly to focus on the class, for the money he had paid, but yeah, it didn’t work. I heard another TA describe this boy as being “addicted to the bible”. He was usually very quiet in class and never troubled anyone, did not too bad in study but he kept praying now and then.
Is the boy spiritual? Some might say that he is a ‘Jesus-freak’. Others might see him as being devoted.
I had a friend who was my junior in the same university. A Muslim, if you hadn’t guessed already. He was the normal devout Muslim who never bothered anyone except me, of course. Don’t take it in the wrong way, he was good friend.
(I just thought I will mention this, not wishing to leave any Muslim friends here feel bad… no question for this part).
So, individual perceptions vary because people have varied (sometimes pretty weird) notions of spirituality. I once read an article where a mother was feeling proud of her son who had become very thoughtful after going to some Osho classes and now silently munches on a chicken burger at breakfast (I assume he did it noisily before)! Some people think they can just live as they want, but just have to do a little good here and there. Some think building schools and hospitals gives them spiritual uplift. There are some others who think they need to put an external show of ‘religiosity’ in order to feel ‘spiritual’ and convince others as such. The increasing number of fake swamis these days is proof enough.
The point I am trying to get to is this. Do we actually know what spirituality is? Who is a spiritual person? What does it take to become and remain a spiritual person?
Note: It is impossible to teach Spiritual Science without an associated ‘philosophy’. Whatever I am going to present in this series is fully based on Vaishnava Siddhanta.
We can say a spiritual person is one who has realized his actual identity as an eternal, undivided, indestructible ‘anu-atma’, an infinitesimal spirit soul. This in common terms can be termed as ‘self-realization’. So, spiritual science starts off with this fundamental understanding that we are the spirit souls. And the purpose of this science is in realizing one’s true nature and purpose of existence in relation to the Supreme Lord.
There are many versions of ‘self-realization’ going around. Some term it as ‘realizing oneself as the divine’. The more popular version is ‘realizing that God is in everything, so everything is God’. I keep coming to these statements over and over again since these ideas have taken over so many millions of people in a deadly grip of self-glorification, and false hope of ‘becoming God’ one day.
There are also so many people who subtly demand to be glorified and worshipped by projecting themselves as ‘self-realized’. So, in order to make proper spiritual progress, it is critical to understand that we are not the body, but it even more critical to understand that we are NOT God and the commonly stated goal of spirituality, Moksha, does NOT mean oneness or nothingness. I know that there would be many people who subscribe to the ideas of this oneness or even nothingness quoting Aham Brahmasmi, Tat tvam asi etc. It would suffice to say that I do not follow Advaita and it is not my interest to try and prove to anyone as to why it is so.
Nowadays, to say that we believe in the existence of the soul is to invite the ire of the ‘modern scien-tellectuals’. They say that there is no soul, because they do not have any evidence of the same. The Vedas repeatedly say that the soul is not a gross material entity, which by default makes it beyond the reach of our material senses, skills and our contraptions. So we cannot realize the existence of the soul by direct experience or direct perception. The only way we do this is through ‘Shabda’, which are the ‘Vedas’. If one does not accept the Vedas as an authority, they have no business commenting on spiritual matters that stem from the Vedas.
Let’s take a look at around us. There are so many machines around us. Billions of buildings are being built and have been built. You see flights taking off or landing, ships afloat on water. Computers rule the world these days. But there is one thing that will bring all this to a stop if removed from the scene.
Us. The ‘living’ beings.
Without the presence and touch of a spiritual entity, gross matter can NEVER gain conscious abilities or the inspiration or impetus for creativity. Without the spirit inside, even this body will have no capabilities, even though it might be perfectly healthy from a ‘medical’ point of view. So to believe that all that is around us was somehow manifested by chance is gross foolishness. It takes that ‘spark’ of spiritual energy to…
Anyway, let’s get back to topic. We have seen what self realization is. How does one get self realized? Spiritual science is actually very simple and extremely complex at the same time. This is not word play. For a person who accepts the Veda pramana, this science is very simple. For one who wants to get to the spiritual stage by logical analysis, it is very complex and difficult to understand.
This spiritual science comes with its own set of rules and regulations, just like modern science. But unlike modern science, there is an additional component that renders the outcome of a spiritual experiment as unpredictable sometimes: personal resolve. It does require a person’s undivided attention and resolve to progress on the spiritual path. This resolve comes from faith, built through proper ‘sanga’ or ‘association’, properly guided by the grace of one’s Guru and by the mercy of the Supreme Lord Krishna.
It only takes humble service and truthful enquiry to an Acharya, to understand spiritual science. And it is the same thing that makes this that much more difficult. Through experience I can say that when you in search of spiritual knowledge and are sincere, when you are ready, it is actually your Guru who finds you. This is difficult to grasp logically, but that is how it works in the spiritual dimension.
I know my focus has been in all directions in this article, but I hope that my condition will improve. From the next article onwards, I would like to take things in a more easy pace, starting with the basic regulatory principles for spiritual practice. Thank you for your patience.
Ancient Wisdom, Modern relevance – Introduction to Srimad Bhagavad Gita
What is happiness?
If you ask anyone, ‘what is happiness?’ I am sure that the answers that you would get from most people would be similar. Good health, nice family, enough money, time to enjoy the little pleasures of this world, love, peace… it is not hard to imagine what would make people happy. Everyone in this world aspires to be happy all the time. The only problem is what WE define and seek as happiness, once gotten, doesn’t last forever. A few hours or days at best, that’s all. And then the rigors of the material world seize and engage us.
We use so many tools to aid us in our search for happiness, good health and why, even immortality! As a result of that relentless endeavor, modern science has enabled us to do so many things seemingly better than before, compared to natural alternatives. Life has become so dynamic that many people started professing that ‘change’ is the only constant in this world.
All these attempts at improving our condition of life, all the progress that we made, ignore the four other constants that come by nature in material life: Birth, disease, old age and death. Whatever efforts we make to improve our lives, and to be happy, the four constants always manage to get the better of us. And with death, everything comes to a very efficient end.
An intelligent person begins to think as to why he is forced to suffer, when all he wants is to be happy. A natural progress of that thought process would lead to questions like where did I come from, what am I doing here, where I would go after death and culminates in asking the most fundamental question which forms the basis of Vedic philosophy:
‘Who am I?’
The Vedas and associated Vedic scriptures offer great insight in to life’s mysteries. These ancient treasure troves of wisdom and knowledge, being coeternal with God and infallible in their own right, direct us to change our attention from the temporary towards the permanent, from matter to spirit, from the body to the soul.
They teach us that our endeavors to be happy through gratifying our senses would lead to only misery. They also inform us about our original spiritual nature – that each of us are not the body but infinitesimal spiritual sparks, Spirit Souls, that are not of this material world and that the only way to have eternal happiness to revive our natural relationship with the Supreme Soul, God, of whom we are all part and parcel of, yet different.
The Vedic knowledge was primarily transmitted orally in the previous ages. In order to make the Vedic knowledge easily accessible to the people in the Kali Yuga (the present age), the great literary incarnation, Sage Vyasa, compiled the entire knowledge in to principally the 4 Vedas, 108 Upanishads, 18 Puranas and 2 Itihaasas (epics, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata).
Understanding the Vedas, which are compiled in exquisitely perfected Sanskrit, is a nightmare even for the most erudite scholar these days. Learning Sanskrit itself would take close to 12 years of study and then one has to study the various siddhantas (philosophies) and Bhashyas (commentaries) as expounded by the great Acharyas of the past, to grasp even the basics of complex texts like Vedanta Sutras.
Of the texts that form the Vedic scriptures, Srimad Bhagavad Gita, which is found in Mahabharata, is the most important section. It is the essence of all Vedic knowledge. It is also called Gitopanishad, and is the consolidated description of the most intense, hair-raising dialogue between the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna and his dearest friend, the warrior-archer, Arjuna. Running in to 700 verses over 18 chapters, it is described in much simpler Sanskrit, which leaves absolutely no room for interpretation and logical debating which is allowed by the Vedanta sutras.
This dialogue starts with questions asked by Arjuna, who is feeling very confused, dejected and sad on the eve of a great battle against his cousins, the Kauravas and their army. Arjuna is one of the ‘Mahajanas’, and being a friend to the Lord, he is above all ignorance. But the Acharyas explain that he was put in to this situation specifically to enquire about problems of life so that Sri Krishna himself can explain it for the benefit for future generations, namely, us.
(It is to be noted that this great dialogue was spoken on the eve of battle, in the middle of two armies standing ready to fight. It lends credence to the practicality of such a philosophy, much against a common belief that any spirituality or philosophical pursuit is meant for practice only in peaceful times or in a forest away from common day to day works.)
The spirit with which one should hear and accept the teachings of Srimad Bhagavad Gita is shown by Arjuna in the course of his discussion with Lord Krishna. When a physician gives a medicine, you take it only by following his directions. Similarly, the instructions given in Bhagavad Gita are to be taken only as Lord Krishna means it and not as per one’s own whim and wish. The perfect example for such a proper acceptance is shown by Arjuna himself. In the second chapter, verse 7, Arjuna surrenders:
pṛcchāmi tvāḿ dharma-sammūḍha-cetāḥ
yac chreyaḥ syān niścitaḿ brūhi tan me
śiṣyas te ‘haḿ śādhi māḿ tvāḿ prapannam
“Now I am confused about my duty and have lost all composure because of miserly weakness. In this condition I am asking You to tell me for certain what is best for me. Now I am Your disciple, and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me.”
Here’s how Arjuna accepts Lord Krishna’s instructions, in chapter 10, verse 12 thru 14:
paraḿ brahma paraḿ dhāma
pavitraḿ paramaḿ bhavān
puruṣaḿ śāśvataḿ divyam
ādi-devam ajaḿ vibhum
āhus tvām ṛṣayaḥ sarve
devarṣir nāradas tathā
asito devalo vyāsaḥ
svayaḿ caiva bravīṣi me
“Arjuna said: You are the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the ultimate abode, the purest, the Absolute Truth. You are the eternal, transcendental, original person, the unborn, the greatest. All the great sages such as Nārada, Asita, Devala, and Vyāsa confirm this truth about You, and now You Yourself are declaring it to me.”
sarvam etad ṛtaḿ manye
yan māḿ vadasi keśava
na hi te bhagavan vyaktiḿ
vidur devā na dānavāḥ
“O Kṛṣṇa, I totally accept as truth all that You have told me. Neither the demigods nor the demons, O Lord, can understand Your personality.”
So, to conclude, one must understand the teachings of Bhagavad Gita as Arjuna understood it. Only then, that understanding is considered perfect. Only when one hears it in a submissive mood, in devotion to the Supreme Lord, one can understand the teachings of Bhagavad Gita as understood by Arjuna, which is to say, correctly and perfectly.
What do Arjuna and Lord Krishna talk about? What subject matters does Bhagavad Gita address? How does one go about getting this knowledge perfectly? These I will address in the next article.