Q. What does Vedic literature in general and Gaudiya Vaisnavism in particular say regarding culture? Couldn’t one consider Gaudiya Vaisnavism a culture of a sort, albeit one situated on the transcendental platform?
A. Gaudiya Vaisnavism is indeed a culture, the culture of Krishna consciousness—krishnanusilanam. It is the culture of an ideal that transcends the influence of material nature. Both Vedic culture and Gaudiya Vaisnavism classify people of this world according to the influence that material nature has on them. Sattva (goodness) influences one’s psyche with clarity, rajas (passion) with longing, and tamas (ignorance) with indolence. As a byproduct of culturing love of Krishna, the threefold qualities of material nature are transcended. Bhagavad-gita 18.54 tells us that in this state of spiritual attainment (brahma-bhutah) the devotee becomes self-fulfilled (prasannatma), ceases lamenting about (na socati) or hankering for (na kanksati) material happiness, and feels equally disposed to all living entities (samah sarvesu bhutesu). These byproducts, as well as the goal itself, transcendent love in devotion to Sri Krishna (mat-bhaktim labhate param), can be obtained through krishnanusilanam.)
Q. I joined an asrama and lived as a brahmacari (celibate student) in the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition for a year. I left the asrama because I couldn’t live up to the high devotional standards of a brahmacari, not because I had rejected Vaisnava philosophy. Now that I left the asrama, I don’t chant or follow any devotional regulations, and I seldom visit the temple. My question is should I still consider myself a devotee?
A. You should consider yourself a follower of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who is known as the karuna avatara (incarnation of mercy). His generous outreach extends to anyone who has even a little faith in Krishna. Therefore there is much hope for you. In your present condition, the best thing you can do for your spiritual life is to associate with advanced devotees. By such association, gradually you will become inspired to resume your devotional practice.
Q. Will those who commit sinful acts even though they know it is wrong suffer more karmic reaction than those who commit the same act not understanding that it is wrong? What about devotees who stray from the path and commit sins due to the allurements of maya, do they receive a karmic reaction worse than that of people who never took to devotional life?
A. Generally sinful acts committed with theoretical knowledge of the fact that they are sinful are more detrimental than those committed with no knowledge. However, the fall downs or weaknesses of devotees are not treated equally with the sins of those not on the spiritual path. Those who strive and struggle on the path of devotion, even unsuccessfully, are better off because of their striving than those who do not strive at all.
Q. If one accepts payment for food offered to Krishna (prasadam), how does it affect the nature and result of that service? Would prasadam distributed for payment still be considered bhakti-yoga (with a somehow diminished result), or would it be karma-yoga or just karma?
A. Generally one should not make a business out of distributing prasadam. It is mercy, for which there is no price. Still, many temples accept donations for the Deity and then give prasadam. There is no harm in doing this. Furthermore, my Guru Maharaja encouraged his disciples to open vegetarian restaurants in which food would be prepared by devotees and offered to the Deity or a picture of Gaura/Krishna. Such efforts done on the basis of his encouragement can only bring auspiciousness to all parties involved.
In general, food offered to Krishna and then distributed to the public will benefit the public spiritually relative to the amount of devotion in the offering. As for those who do the offering and distribution of such prasadam, the result will largely depend on what is done with the money.
Q. Divya jnanam (transcendental knowledge) can be obtained and papa (sin) can be destroyed simply by the will of Sri Guru, so why is the formality of receiving diksa mantra (initiation) from a guru necessary?
A. By the grace of Sri Guru, all sin and ignorance can be destroyed, but that grace comes first in the form of helping us to understand the necessity of diksa. After accepting diksa we come completely under Sri Guru’s grace and are thus equipped not only to overcome ignorance but moreover to awaken our dormant love of God. Diksa is a necessity for any conditioned soul who wants to make substantial progress on the path of devotion to Sri Krishna. So do the needful.
Q. If one’s guru hasn’t left the path of devotion but for some reason the disciple is not satisfied and feels unable to make further progress under his or her guidance, is it acceptable to ask the guru for blessings to study under a different teacher?
A. One who feels as you have described can offer respect to the initiating guru and ask for blessings to take shelter of a siksa (instructing) guru. Understanding the circumstances, the initiating guru should then give his or her blessings.
Q. Can you give me suggestions on how to improve my chanting? I know from my studies in psychology that an average human mind can sustain undivided attention for up to seven minutes (surprisingly little) before it starts to wander. If the mind is not trained, it starts to make lists that usually have to do with quotidian life. This has been shown in the literature and experiments with attention and concentration.
Given that my mind is less than average, I am experiencing difficulty with wandering thoughts while I am chanting. I know that being distracted while chanting is offensive and every distraction hurts my progress. What is the process of training the mind to concentrate on chanting the holy name of Krishna?
A. This verse tells us how to perfect our chanting:
manah-samharanam saucam maunam mantrartha-cintanam
avyagratvam anirvedo japa-sampatti-hetavah
“In order to perfect one’s chanting of japa, one needs to cultivate the following qualities: control of the mind, internal and external purity, silence, contemplation of the mantra’s meaning, patience, and steadfastness.” (Hari-bhakti-vilasa 17.129)
Here manah-samharanam means to repeatedly bring the mind back when it wanders to sense objects. Avyagratva means that one should not rush one’s chanting in order to finish the fixed number of rounds. Anirveda means that one should not lose hope when one does not attain results as quickly as expected. Bhaktivinoda Thakura has also given us this instruction on chanting:
japa-kale manake ekagra-bhave lao citte suddha thak vatha katha nahi kao,
namartha cintaha sada dhairyasraya kara namete adara kari krishna-nama smara
“While chanting japa, remember Krishna’s name with affectionate respect, concentrate the mind on the chanting alone, be pure in mind and avoid speaking uselessly, contemplate the mantra’s meaning, and remain patient.”
Here ekagra-bhave lao (concentrate the mind on the chanting alone) is not intended to preclude thinking of the meaning of the mantra (mananam/contemplation) nor remembrance of the lila (smaranam) that follows it. While only mananam is mentioned in this song, smaranam is also implied.
Q. When chanting on beads (japa) for a lengthy period of time, is it permissible to chant aloud for some time, then silently, then with silent movement of the lips? Also should the pace of the japa be steady or sometimes faster or slower depending on the bhava experienced at that particular time?
A. Our Namacarya Sri Haridasa Thakura chanted almost 200 rounds of Hare Krishna japa daily. He chanted 64 of these rounds silently (manasika), 64 aloud but whispering (upamsu) to others, and 64 aloud (vacasika). So all three types of japa are permissible. One can chant faster or slower as inspired. In actual bhava, all questions are answered.
Q. Are there any prayers or mantras that should be repeated before and after devotional reading and study of Srimad-Bhagavatam?
A. There are many, but this prayer from Srimad-Bhagavatam is popularly chanted before recitation of this scripture:
naram caiva narottamam
devim sarasvatim vyasam
tato jayam udirayet
“Before reciting this Srimad-Bhagavatam, which is our very means of conquest, one should offer respectful obeisances unto the Personality of Godhead, Narayana, unto Nara-narayana Rsi, the super-most human being, unto mother Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, and unto Srila Vyasadeva, the author.”
Q. I would like to know if there are any scriptural prohibitions in the Vaisnava tradition against wearing Rudraksa beads for self-empowerment and pacifying negative planetary effects.
A. There is no need for a Vaisnava to wear Rudraksa beads. However, I know of no scriptural statements that prohibit it. Vaisnavas honor Lord Siva by worshiping Krishna. This is appropriate because the vision of the Bhagavatam is that Lord Siva is also a Vaisnava.
Lord Siva: The Glance of Love
Q. My realization is that if I could become truly humble I would make spiritual progress. About humility, Sri Caitanya gave the “trnad api sunicena” verse where it says we should give honor to others but not desire respect for ourselves. This seems almost impossible to me, so in my stage of devotion how am I to understand true humility?
A. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura said that humility refers to giving up the enjoying spirit. This involves the positive cultivation of a serving disposition. The verse you have cited is perhaps the most important instruction Mahaprabhu gave us on how to make advancement—how to attain nistha, or steadiness in devotional practice: kirtaniya sada harih. While sraddha (faith) makes one eligible to tread the path of bhakti, this verse speaks of eligibility for chanting the holy name, by which one becomes qualified to enter Krishna lila.
Q. How is it possible to truly cultivate a personal, intimate, and loving relationship with God when God is not personally present before us to make this possible? This has been a great stumbling block for me on the beloved path of bhakti. Chanting the holy name and Deity worship make sense to me philosophically, but I am ashamed to admit that even though I have been practicing these devotional activities they have not helped me feel closer to God thus far. This has led me to believe that perhaps God wants us to serve him through selflessly serving those we do have personal contact with. Can we achieve pure spiritual love by serving humanity?
A. Serving humanity is also part of Gaudiya Vaisnava spiritual culture in that within the context of directly cultivating love of God through spiritual practices such as chanting the name of Krishna, we are also advised to show kindness to all living beings (jiva daya). Kindness requires God-conscious empathy for suffering humanity, as well as a feeling for selfless service to others. Without kindness one will not make much advancement toward the ideal of Gaudiya Vaisnavism.
The ideal is to establish a personal, loving relationship with God (Krishna), but to do this in the fullest sense, it is necessary to dismantle one’s present material, ego-based personality. This is necessary because it is our soul, not our material sense of identity, that can commune directly with Krishna.
Dismantling the material ego cannot be achieved by mental or intellectual means alone because the mind and intellect are both products of matter. The material ego can be conquered by the grace of Sri Krishna through chanting his name and worshiping his Deity form under the guidance of an advanced devotee.
In the beginning one may not be able understand how dismantling the material ego is a byproduct of the culture of Krishna consciousness, but after performing devotional activities for some time, one should be able to perceive this to some extent and should look for signs that this is happening. If you feel it is not happening, I would recommend that you find a representative of God (a siksa guru) in our lineage and establish a personal relationship with him or her through service.
Success in bhakti is brought about by saranagati (surrender), which is an affair of the heart and not a mechanical process. Due to material conditioning, the heart has become hard and some hearts may be much harder than others. Soften your heart through chanting and Deity worship under the guidance of an advanced Vaisnava and in time you will feel yourself developing real feeling for Sri Krishna.