Q. Where is it stated that one should chant sixteen rounds of the maha-mantra daily? So far, I can only practice in a heartfelt way. Whenever I have the urge to chant (usually when I’m feeling bad), I do one or more rounds.
A. The particular prescription for practice is given by one’s initiating guru. One guru may advise his disciples to chant sixteen rounds of japa, while another may advise more or less rounds. This advice may also vary for disciples of the same guru. Certainly the spirit of chanting should be heartfelt. You chant mostly when feeling bad. You need to realize just how bad the material condition is. This will give you the impetus you need to search out higher guidance, Sri Guru.
Q. How does one find a guru from whom one can learn with an open mind and heart?
A. The guru will find you. If you are earnest, you will draw down reciprocation from above in the form of a guide. Your own sincerity is most important. Some knowledge is also required. Books like Bhagavad-gita clearly describe the nature and qualities of saintly persons. You should study such books carefully. And be patient. Worship Krishna and pray to him to send you a guru.
Q. When I chant in the morning, or at any time, I have to struggle immensely to keep at bay mundane thoughts and concerns. What are my chances of chanting purely in this lifetime?
A. It takes time and the resolve to give priority to your spiritual culture over anything else. There is no reason why this cannot be done in household life, but it is not easy. You have to make your household a conducive atmosphere. Chanting should be done at the same time every day without distraction.
What are your chances? Pretty good if you are actually as concerned as you sound. At least you are chanting, and you are not satisfied with the quality of your chanting.
When thoughts arise during your chanting, you have to discipline the mind and dismiss them. Think of the mind as you do your children. If you always give them what they want they will be spoiled. Sometimes you have to say “No!” Say no to your mind for two hours every day during your chanting whenever it speaks up. You also have to laugh at the mind sometimes.
Bhaktivinoda Thakura has recommended locking oneself in a room blindfolded during japa. I don’t recommend that, but rather the spirit of it. Make up your mind to chant without offense and you will get results quickly. If japa is too difficult, do kirtana for an hour every day. Sit or stand and chant loudly. Don’t worry what others will think. Don’t think.
Q. Every religion states that their God and their process is the only way. Is Gaudiya Vaisnavism any different?
A. There are a number of paths leading to the transcendence of material suffering. In my opinion some of them speak of deeper levels of penetration into transcendence than others. I consider Vaisnavism, and Gaudiya Vaisnavism in particular, to be representative of paths leading to the zenith of spiritual attainment. However, I would encourage one to focus on basic practices that are likely common to all ego-effacing paths. That is to say, let not the theoretical truths of Gaudiya Vaisnavism fill its adherents with pride and get in the way of focusing on the common predicament they share with all practitioners.
We are conditioned by the influence of material nature, and actual knowing, inner wisdom, and more so, love of God will be experienced only by those who pay the price of constant spiritual practice that involves honoring all.
Q. How can I be confident that my daily experience in sadhana-bhakti is not a hoax? Is our religious experience really a disclosure of spiritual realities, or simply a massive discharge of dopamine in the brain?
A. In the history of humanity there is a long standing debate on theism vs. atheism. Better thinkers than you or I have pondered this issue reaching different conclusions. From this it seems that there is sufficient logic in support of the spiritual reality, at least as much as there is in support of atheism. Beyond logic lies the realm of spiritual experience. Without consistent data to support that the varied spiritual experiences from sect to sect, and the different levels of experience described within various sects can be consistently reproduced by discharges of chemicals in the brain, we are left to believe what the transcendentalists say about these experiences. And we can proceed to experience ourselves.
If you like the experiences you get from your practice, continue the practice, as there is no other proven method by which one can get such experience. Furthermore, the method prescribed by the saints for attaining spiritual experience involves becoming an ideal person, whose actions (karma) are integrated with knowledge (jnana), making one fit for a balanced emotional life (bhakti).
To become selfless, self controlled, equal in one’s dealings with others, self satisfied, and so on, is desirable. It is also blissful. Over the centuries persons have consistently attained these qualities through spiritual discipline, and not by any other method. They are by no means easy to attain, even by the prescribed method. Spiritual life is about being an ideal person. It is a daunting task but there is no greater challenge. Strive for it by any means.
Q. I am perplexed and worried seeing the divisions and disagreements which are afflicting the devotee communities.
A. Yes, this is disconcerting. However, everyone is moving in accordance with their faith, their experience. In this way everything can be harmonized. We can learn from the poor example of others how not to behave. My advice for you is to truly, once and for all, place yourself in the hands of God. It is not difficult to understand how to do this. But it is difficult to do. However, this is the task, nothing short of this will do. Do it, and your future will be bright regardless of what anyone else does.
Q. Is the Gaudiya Saraswata sampradaya (including Iskcon) really authorized? Can it truly trace its origin in an unbroken line back to Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu?
A. Yes, the lineage of Bhaktisiddhanta is authorized. It acknowledges spiritual descent via both diksa and siksa and draws its unbroken line in consideration of this. That is to say, wherever its diksa connection is less substantial, it looks for the influence of a siksa guru of greater realization that played a role in the descent of divya jnana. For example, we feel that the spiritual realization of Jagannatha dasa babaji and his influence on Bhaktivinoda Thakura was greater than that of the Thakura’s diksa guru, Bipin Behari Goswami. Thus when drawing our line we place his name before Bhaktivinoda rather than the Thakura’s diska guru.
We place Bhaktivinoda Thakura in our line because his spiritual influence had a tremendous effect on Bhaktisidhanta Saraswati Thakura. Bhaktivinoda also gave him the Holy Name. So we see Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Prabhupada as a disciple of both Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Gaura Kishor das babaji, from whom he received his diksa mantra. In this way, we seek to fortify the diksa line with the power of great siksa gurus who have influenced it along the way making for an actual siddha pranali (line of siddhas). The line is no doubt crooked like a snake, but so is the course of love. As Rupa Goswami says, aher iva gatih premnah svabhava kutila bhavet, (Ujjvala-nilamani, sringara-bheda-kathana 102).
The argument against this lineage is an old one that gets new energy when our lineage demonstrates the same weakness it seeks to critique. Otherwise, there is not much substance to it. After all, this argument is blind to the obvious spirituality of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura and a number of his followers. One who swallows this argument is hard pressed to explain the spirituality of those it reasons cannot have it. And if you believe it, why ask me?
Enter the lineage of your choice and begin your spiritual life. And when you do, if you look hard enough, you will no doubt find persons who have apparently good reasons to discredit your chosen lineage—and all lineages for that matter.
Q. Through all the arguments, both pro and con, about which sampradaya is bona fide and which one is not and all the supporting scriptural evidence that seems to support both views, I’m experiencing disenchantment with the whole thing.
A. It appears that you have delved into issues that have not strengthened your resolve for spiritual practice. So judge your actions by the results they produce. True virtue involves knowing your own position, your level of eligibility, your capacity (adhikara), and acting accordingly. It is just as virtuous to remain on the level of dharma (acting responsibly), if that is all that one is eligible for, as it is to practice raganuga bhakti, if one is qualified for that. Don’t try to jump ahead. You will fall.
Acting responsibly is on one end of the spectrum, just prior to the actual practice of yoga. Raganuga bhakti is on the other end, when actual hankering for serving Krishna in a particular way takes over one’s heart. Which (Gaudiya) sampradaya is bonafide?
In my experience, if you actually understand and practice the lineage of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, coming through Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, you will feel positive results. Then follow your ruci.