Q. I was married to an abusive devotee. My children and I feared for our lives and even had to hide from him. I am no longer with this man and hold no ill feelings towards him, but my children have not forgiven him. I have decided not to remarry but am I still to regard myself as this man’s wife? Where do I fit in with regard to Vaisnava culture?
A. Domestic violence is abhorrent and it is hardly softened when it is based on so-called religious principles. Any woman who finds herself in such a situation should get out of it for her spiritual and material wellbeing. Marriage is about love and commitment in the service of God. To the extent that this is lacking, the marriage is not working. When something does not work, we should try to fix it, but if it cannot be fixed, we should move on. Marriage falls within the realm of relativity. It should be harmonized with the call of the absolute, but it should never be allowed to obscure that call in the name of spirituality.
Q. If the soul is, as you say, “asleep” [when in illusion], then who or what is doing the thinking, willing, feeling, and making conscious choices?
A. The soul in its sleep is not fully aware of the extent to which it exists or other aspects of its own nature. Under the influence of material nature (illusion), it makes choices it would not make were it not under this influence. Just as someone intoxicated is said to be someone other than himself, so the illusioned soul is not the true self, the awakened self. (This answer continues in ‘Sex, Drugs, and the Veil of Illusion,’ the latest edition of “Ask the Swami” on Beliefnet.com).
Q. I was wondering if you have the text for the Gopala Mantra. We are trying to conceive a baby and I was told to recite the mantra every day. Thank you and we seek your blessings.
A. Chant the Hare Krishna mantra instead. Sri Caitanya recommended this for everyone. As you are purified from such nama kirtana and your spiritual conceptual orientation to life develops in terms of Sri Caitanyadeva’s spiritual contribution, you can then receive the Gopala mantra from a qualified guru and engage in mantra dhyana. At present I am writing a commentary on the Gopala-tapani Upanisad, in which the significance of the Gopala mantra is explained, including the necessity of receiving it from a qualified preceptor after one has attained eligibility for initiation.
Q. How does one not see himself as God when everything is God? I am having trouble drawing the philosophical distinction. If everything exists inside God, how am I a part of God, yet an individual? How am I separate from God when I exist within God?
A. Light and heat are inseparable yet distinguishable from fire. Similarly we are both identified with and different from God at the same time. This reality transcends logic.
When we look in the world for that which most resembles God, we find it is ourselves. As units of consciousness, we are infinitely superior to all that is inanimate. We experience, while matter is experienced. If matter was important independent of consciousness, who would care about it? Who would know?
However, at the moment we find ourselves overwhelmed by matter, thinking it to be more important than ourselves. This indicates that although we are constitutionally superior to matter, we are subject to its influence. God is not subject to matter’s influence. If God were, there would be no meaning to God’s supremacy. That is one difference between God and us. There are many other differences as well. Thus we are one and different from God.
Q. When studying Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita or Srimad-Bhagavatam, one can easily see that there are sometimes differences in the word-for-word translations provided and the final translation. This fact is not hidden and in almost every case the final translation serves to prove that bhakti is the best path. I faithfully accept that verdict and try to be a real Krishna-bhakta, but how do I understand this discrepancy, especially when Prabhupada’s devotees preach to accept the Bhagavad-gita “AS IT IS”?
A. There will often be a grammatical difference between a transliteration or word-for-word translation of a verse and the actual translation itself. Words may also change from transliteration to translation without changing the actual meaning of a translated word in an effort to make a translation that sounds good in English. Translations may be literal, or the translator may take poetic license, or more, a translator may include his or her purport within the translation, saying that “this” is what the original verse implies.
In the case of Srila Prabhupada’s Gita translation, he has in some places included his purport in the translation. However, his purport is based on the commentaries of previous Gaudiya acaryas who have demonstrated in their commentaries the grammatical correctness of drawing such conclusions. Those who doubt the grammatical legitimacy of Srila Prabhupada’s translations or the correctness of his purports in terms of representing the meaning of the verses can look to the commentaries of our previous Gaudiya acaryas. In their extensive writings those acaryas have laid the groundwork for reaching a devotional conclusion as to the Gita’s import. To a large extent I have represented them in my edition of the Gita, and there are other Gaudiya editions available that include much of those commentaries as well.
Careful study of the Gita reveals that it can be interpreted as leaning toward a conclusion that emphasizes either jnana over bhakti, or bhakti over jnana. The followers of Advaita Vedanta and its offshoots understand the Gita to be stressing jnana over bhakti, but all the Vaisnava commentators, including Ramanuja and Madhva, understand the Gita to be stressing bhakti over jnana. Scholars who are not practitioners are also divided on this issue.
I believe that a reading of the Gita that emphasizes jnana over bhakti is forced and does not represent the natural conclusion of the text. I also believe that most readers familiar with both sides of the argument will agree with me on this point.
However, ultimately the Gita responds to the reader’s own interest and psychology, which in the world of the Bhagavad-gita is considered to be something that is formed over lifetimes—a product of association with those treading the paths of jnana or bhakti. As Krishna himself says in the text (Bg 4.11), he reciprocates in accordance with the measure of one’s approach. Sri Krishna is like a multifaceted jewel, and he reveals himself differently to different persons.
Q. I was under the impression that everything in scripture, including any commentary, is absolute. I worry that if I start to read scripture and scriptural commentaries thinking that all contained therein is not absolute, I will have a tendency to reject things arbitrarily based on my limited and small conceptions of this world, especially at this time after my guru has departed from the world. Therefore I am writing to you to see if you can enlighten me further on this matter, as it is difficult to see everything in the written word as absolute, yet if I do not, the other problem arises.
A. There is relativity in the scripture, and commentators also differ in their opinions as to the significance and application of different scriptural statements. All of this is difficult to sort out and therefore guidance is recommended at every step. In the absence of your guru it may be wise to seek help from another saint.
However, ultimately spiritual practitioners need to learn to think critically yet spiritually for themselves. The scripture and saints are emphatic on this point, and a qualified siksa guru will be able to help you to reach this level of spiritual discrimination—to be a spiritual yet critical thinker.
Scripture represents a body of knowledge in which the supreme goal of life is described along with the means of attaining this goal. However, the scripture also seeks to direct those who are not interested in the ultimate goal of life. To this end it provides relative knowledge of other possible goals that humanity might achieve and how humankind can best attain these lesser goals.
The scripture contains laws that govern the realization of different ideals that arise in the human psyche, and it also offers an objective means of determining the hierarchy of human values. In doing so, it is not dogmatic. It invites the application of reason, leaving each individual to determine what is relevant to him in terms of his particular ideal. Reason is also invited to participate in one’s understanding the conclusion of the Vedas, as well as in vindicating the scripture in the face of opposition from those who do not acknowledge its authority. The Vedanta-sutra itself sets this example.
Thus genuine submission to a spiritual authority should ultimately result in this kind of critical spiritual thinking. Unfortunately, many persons either try to do this without actually submitting themselves to a transrational means of knowing or in the name of submission to a spiritual authority, seek to avoid the difficult task of critical spiritual thinking. Please note that while there is considerable crossover, critical spiritual thinking and critical thinking are not the same.
Thakura Bhaktivinoda argues that in one sense scripture itself and more so scriptural commentaries are derived from the personal realizations of spiritually advanced souls. Thus we cannot neglect our own personal insight entirely and blindly follow scripture in the name of spiritual practice.
Regarding this point Thakura Bhaktivinoda writes:
“Therefore, it is necessary to cultivate knowledge in the light of one’s own personal realizations. This is the rule governing scriptural study. Since knowledge born of personal realization is the root of all the scriptures, how can we expect to gain benefit by ignoring it and depending exclusively on the scriptures, which are the branches growing out of it?
“A conditioned soul is advised to study the Veda with the help of the explanations of scriptural commentators. But even with the help of these explanations, he should still examine them in the light of his own self-evident knowledge (or personal realizations), because the authors of these explanatory literatures and commentaries are not always clear in their meaning.”
It should also be stressed that the downside of avoiding critical spiritual thinking in the name of following strictly is immense. It involves the withdrawal of one’s own intellectual faculty from the service of God, rendering the practitioner less than spiritually or even materially whole. It also serves to turn a vital spiritual tradition into an irrelevant body of religious and cultural baggage, fueling the fire of those who believe that religion and scripture are for those who cannot deal with uncertainty or anything less than that which is black and white.