a blade of grass

… he told me that perfection could be learned from nature. be more humble than a blade of grass; more tolerant than a tree. give respect to others freely, without expectation or motive. in such a state of mind, stripped bare of your false pretenses, call out to your Lord eternally.

i’m still working on it …


Tonight on CNN...

Haribol! I feel somewhat embarrassed to be blogging again -- not because I don't want to -- but because the thing that has brought me back to a blade of grass is some shameless self-promotion.

Yesterday afternoon, I got a call from a producer at CNN. She asked me to be a guest on a live Holiday Show, hosted by Christian speaker and journalist Roland Martin, on the subject of Christmas and the culture wars. The show is called "What Would Jesus Really Do?" and I will be part of a panel of representatives from other (i.e. - non-Christian) faith traditions.

The show is live, and is on tonight (12/21) and possiblly will be replay on Christmas Eve (12/24) at 8pm EST. Not sure about international airing.

I am excited and more than a little nervous. I've done media interviews on TV and radio before. But still, each time is like the first. The butterflies are already holding a Ratha Yatra festival in my stomach. Oh, and let's not forget... CNN is CNN.

I want to speak with integrity, warmth, and honesty. I want to communicate the essence of my faith's spiritual message, and do so in a way that comes from the heart as much as it does from my mouth. I want to be an instrument.

Dear reader, I know that I haven't been the best at keeping up my end of this blog relationship. Okay, okay: so I've been downright neglectful. But I hope that you will find it in your heart to tune in and say a prayer for me tonight. Under the glare of the hot lights, with cameras aimed at me, and knowing that millions (?) of people are watching me from the comfort of their living room couches... I will need all the prayers I can get.

More later, if I survive...



iPhone, mePhone, minePhone

For the last three and a half months, I've been using someone else's phone.

My godbrother Shyama Vallabh Prabhu is a doctor by profession and is serving as the executive director of the new Vrindavana Hospice. He and his wife spent some time in the United States to undergo some training this past year, and paid us a visit. We took them around New York a bit and helped them do some last minute shopping...

... which brings us back to the phone. Shyama Vallabh wanted a top of the line smart phone to take back to India with him. He selected the HTC Pocket PC -- just the sort of uber-expensive ($700 without a plan) high-tech gizmo that I could only dream about owning myself. But just as I resigned myself to a fate of drooling over the iPhone from afar, Shyama Vallabh turned my world upside down. It turns out that the HTC would not be in stock for a few days (and Shyama was flying out the next morning) so... would I mind holding on to the phone for the next few months, trying it out with my sim card, making sure that it was okay during the 90 day warranty period, and then sending it on to India with my mom in November? Suddenly the impossible was literally in the palm of my hands.

And so, for the past three months I've lived the life most of us can only dream about. I've been able to jump on the internet at my whim, not having to wait until I got home to update my FaceBook status or to find that Nigerian bank account scam email waiting for me in my inbox. While my peers scrambled for pieces of paper and pens that work, I've used a stylish stylus to jot down notes right on the large backlit screen. I've QWERTY'd my way through the ups and downs of life. But mainly, I've just tried to look like a guy cool enough to actually own this phone.

All good attachments must come to an end, though. And so today, as my mom zips her last suitcase and prepares for a three-week spiritual adventure in Mayapur, I bid farewell to my ostentatious pocket pal. I've never been too good at goodbyes, so I just extracted the sim card as quickly and painlessly as I could, and slipped it back into my good old Motorola Razr.

There is an interesting post-script to this story, though. The HTC had a feature where I could type in the phone's ownership information (in case it was lost or something). I would type in "Vineet" or "Vyenkata" or "VBD" ... and each time he'd come over, Amul would take it and change it to "Krishna." It became a little game for us, and -- although neither of us said anything about it -- I think we both knew that it was a game he was destined to win. The phone never was mine; like everything else in this life, it was a loaner. Still, it didn't take me very long to write my name on it anyway. Krishna, when will I learn?

So I'll stick with the Razr for a while. Its a decent phone, and it reminds me that there is more to life than QWERTY.

In the mean time, I think I'll go help my mom with her bags.


persecution - us and them

I read this article from the Asian Age, a big ethnic newspaper in the U.K., about the Kazakhstan Campaign there. Having worked on the campaign myself, I was quite interested to see what they had to say.

But what ended up catching my eye (and emotions), was the comment a reader posted. Someone named Mohsin wrote:
I think this is strikingly similar to the way lots of Muslims are being treated in India by the Hindu goverment and also the police. Many houeses burnt, many women, men, chrildren killed for simply being muslims. Remember the demolition of the babri mosque? the killing of pregnant women and having their stomachs ripped out. (BBC 1 PANAROMA 2006) I dont think what the Kazakh goverment is doing but the term "what goes around comes around" strikes to mind. Make dua for everyone suffering around the world due to opression...
Especially since I come from a Hindu background and grew up painfully aware of all of the Hindu/Muslim tensions (or India/Pakistan tensions, which is where a lot of that stuff is coming from), I take this personally. Okay, so (some) Muslims are being mistreated by (some) Hindus in India. The reverse is true as well, of course -- even in India. For the record, most of my more hot-blooded Hindu pals can't stand the government of India and accuse it of being more anti-Hindu than anyone else! There are atrocities on both sides, going back to Partition and even before that. (If anyone wants a particularly poignant history lesson, read up on what Aurangzeb did to Hindus and Sikhs during his bloody reign; meanwhile this radical Islamist website praises him as the "greatest king" to ever rule India).

Anyway, the more that I thought about it, the more I just started to feel really sad. Why is it that often our first reaction in reading a report of how members of our faith mistreated members of another is to say "Yes, BUT..." or "It must not really be that bad..." or (as Mohsin does here) "Well, they deserve it since they did it to us first (or worst)..." How pathetic! As human beings, can't we do better than that? What happened to our basic humanity, to saying "What can I do to help -- or at least sympathize with -- the innocent victims before I start to analyze the history or think of similar victims in my own tradition."

Anyway, I added my own comment to the Asian Age piece. Yes, it was written with some degree of anger and indignation, but maybe we need to be a little bit more indignant now and then.
Mohsin, grow up. The innocent Hindu families being persecuted by the Kazakh government are no more to blame for the demolition of the Babri mosque than the average Muslim family is for the 9/11 attacks. I feel sorry for those who can't muster up enough empathy for the persecuted, and instead just think "Well, *they* did it to *us* first so..." What a sad and childish way of looking at the world! What's next? I could bring up the scores of Hindus being murdered, raped, and burnt alive in Bangladesh, and then someone else can point out how Muslims are the victims somewhere else. "What goes around comes around"? Here's a new expression for you: "An eye for an eye, and the world goes blind..."



I was surfing around on my friend Madhavi's blog, and hit upon her post about "evolution", a thought-provoking film made by the Dove corporation as part of their self esteem focused campaign for real beauty. I am tempted to be cynical about Dove's motives here, but the fact is that -- whether they use it to sell their own beauty products or not -- the short makes an interesting point about how "beauty" and "image" are matters of perception. And, as Madhavi notes, the film also hints at a deeper truth: that our actual identity is something existentially deeper than the superficial trappings of the body and its image. The real identity (which most people of faith would call the "soul" or "spirit") survives the many changes that the body undergoes, in this one lifetime (I can recall, with horror, how many "looks" I went through in the last twenty-something years), and even the more drastic change that we call death.

Of course, it is easy to turn "I am not this body" into as much of a superficial cliche as "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is. (Don't believe me? Hang around a Hare Krishna temple, especially one with some wide-eyed wet-behind-the-ears new bhaktas, for a while.) The challenge isn't in saying the words, it is in actually living our lives as if we believe them.

That having been said, I should add that ad executives, cosmetic industry, entertainment industry, fashion industry, big business, government, and anyone else who can make a buck off of you -- let's just call this whole cast of characters "the material world" -- don't make it any easier. Stroll through your local grocery store or stop by your neighborhood newsstand and take a look at the sultry (and almost always female) faces staring up at you from the cover of every imaginable magazine... from Lady's Home Journal to Maxim to Playboy. Add up the seconds we spend, almost unconsciously, staring back... and before you know it, they make up a lifetime (or more).

Which brings us back to Dove and their issue-raising films. Much like "evolution", the short film "onslaught" reminds us that the beauty industry is screwing with our perceptions of self. It also offers a chilling reminder to parents about their daughters:

Watch "evolution" and visit Madhavi's blog by clicking here.


Killing the Ravana Within

Ekadasi today, which means that I have to confront my inherent (or conditioned?) distaste for austerity and sacrifice. My mind is rebelling; hopefully the antidote is chanting, preparing for an upcoming Holy Name retreat that I am helping to facilitate, and self-medicating with sour-cream smothered potatoes. We'll see.

In other news, despite the uncharacteristically warm weather, I can practically feel the first wisps of Kartik in the air. The holy month of festivals and spiritual magnetism begins on Thursday, and I can't wait. Yesterday was a good sneak preview: Dussera (Sri Rama Vijayotsava), the day commemorating Lord Rama's slaying of the demon Ravana. Aside from the historical significance, there is also the symbolic import: Ravana, the personification of lust, represents the anarthas (spiritual roadblocks) within the heart. To celebrate, devotees burn effigies of Ravana; watching his form burn, they pray for Sri Rama to appear within their hearts and slay these demons within. A nice meditation made nicer by the warmth of a raging fire and the company of fellow sadhakas.

Here are some realizations on the subject, from two senior devotees of Krishna. May they draw your mind towards the lotus feet of Lord Ramachandra...

From H.H. Bhanu Swami, our GBC Chairperson, as part of his regular "A Minute with Bhanu Swami" column at ISKCON News:

In Hari bhakti vilasa there is process for purification of body and mind before deity worship. The devotee gathers all his sins together in the form of the papa-purusa, a mean looking thug dressed in animal skins. He then meditates on burning up that figure and exhaling the ashes. But if I try that, an uncontrollable Australian bush fire may start. Will I spontaneously combust and disappear?

From H.H. Radhanath Swami, excerpted (and slightly edited) from one of my favorite lectures:

By remembering Rama, He appears within our heart.
By remembering Him, He kills all the demons within our heart.

How to conquer the all-devouring sinful enemy, lust? The Supreme Lord showed us the method in a wonderful way. He sent to this world, lust personified: Ravana. Ravana was the most striking emblem of lust in the history of all creation.

Sita Devi is the wife of Lord Rama. Sita is none other than an expansion of Lakshmi Devi, the goddess of fortune. All the fortune of the world is the energy of Sita. And everyone knows Sita is exclusively meant for Rama. What is the definition of love? Love means to assist Sita in Her affair with Rama. Is that not what Hanuman, Sugriva, Lakshman, and the residents of Ayodhya did? Their only desire was to see Rama and Sita happy.

But Ravana wanted to take Sita for himself. That is called
kama or lust. Love is the natural inclination of the soul to want to give pleasure to God. But when the natural affection for God is misplaced in trying to enjoy the property of God for our own selfish desire, then that love is transformed into lust. When that energy is placed toward God it is called prema. When it is placed anywhere else, it is called kama.

Ravana was very tricky. He disguised himself and stole Sita.
Ravana was the symbol of kama. And know that any desire you have to enjoy separate from the Lord is due to the presence of Ravana in your heart. Lord Sri Ramachandra wanted to show to the world how powerful lust really is. Every time he cut off one head of Ravana, another one grew. Doesn't that sound like our own material desires? We perform penances, practice yoga, take vows, to give up this lusty propensity in our hearts and finally we conquer it… and then… another head grows. Those who are on the spiritual path know that as soon as you cut down one head, ten more grow. It is an endless battle.

Finally Rama shot His arrow into Ravana's heart and when the arrow pierced the heart, Ravana fell to the ground. Rama is the only one who has this arrow; it cannot be obtained by any living entity. It is the exclusive power of Rama. That is why Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita, “This material energy is very difficult to overcome. But for one who surrenders unto Me, I take the war in My own hands. I will conquer lust. I will conquer Ravana within your heart. For me it is not difficult. I will kill all the demons in your heart with My arrows.”

When we surrender to the Lord, Rama appears within our heart. When we remember Lord Ramchandraji, He is non-different from that remembrance. The process of
bhakti is to always remember the Lord, to be His devotee, to worship Him and to offer homage unto Him. Through this process Rama appears within our heart, and Ravana and all his heads disappear from our life eternally.


VOTW: The Wonder Years Biography

In honor of the last few posts, and my recent bold confessional about being a Wonder Years fan, I thought I'd give Kevin Arnold and friends some time as the featured Video of the Week. Hope you enjoy this documentary which aired on A&E as part of their TV'ography series.

Incidentally, I'd always secretly hoped (and simultaneously feared) that they'd run an episode where the sister (Karen) became a Hare Krishna. The closest they came to that was having her go vegetarian and have her marriage performed by a hippy-dippy Hindu guru. Not bad, I guess.

And while we're at it, here's some trivia for you... do any WY fans out there recall episodes where the Hare Krishna movement was depicted or referenced? Comment if you do.


stirring stuff up with Vasu Murti

I stumbled across this blog post by devotee writer Vasu Murti, and am glad that I did. Although we've since lost touch, Vasu and I wrote to another for several years when I was a teenager in the mid 1990s. I'm not quite sure how we started pen-paling, but in those pre-email days, there were a few devotees I regularly corresponded with and Vasu was one of my favorites. Among other things, he turned me on to the Smiths, equipped me with interfaith resources, and helped me to appreciate a less fanatical brand of Krishna consciousness. He stirred stuff up, and I thank Krishna that he did. Those exchanges were among the most meaningful factors in my own spiritual growth and development as a member of ISKCON. His writing was insightful, well researched, and deeply personal. After reading his blog post, I think that his writing today is as beautiful, thought-provoking, and honest as it was 12 years ago.

Anyway, his post is here.

I couldn't resist the urge to comment on the post. Here is essentially what I wrote there:

It astounds me that purportedly thoughtful and informed devotees (initiated or otherwise) could challenge the merits of having (and actually caring for and ministering to) a laity. Since when did we turn away anyone who wants to serve Krishna or His devotees? As one senior devotee recently exclaimed to me, with tears in his eyes, "For God's sake, they are our people!"

Preaching necessitates being able to separate principle from practice, form from substance. If we fail to do that, I fear that we will be forever locked into outdated and unhealthy paradigms. At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, it is likely that we will actually wipe ourselves out of existence.

We need to recognize (from the top down and from the bottom up) the value of a Krishna conscious community that includes gradations of commitment or participation. Why do we equate such a compassionate and welcoming approach to Vaisnava sanga with "watering down" the principles or practices of initiated devotees? And what does such a fear say about how (collectively) secure we are in our own devotional standing? As my guru once told me, "Devotees are both conservative and liberal. Conservative with oneself, but liberal with others." Is that really so hard to pull off?

It is tragic that we don't yet have the lexicon to even identify our own broader community. We continue to grapple with antiquated and loaded terminology like "life member" (which is used more often to exclude others as outsiders than to count them as part of the ISKCON family) or "congregation" (which somehow developed a curious racial undertone to it: congregational = Indian, guest = non-Indian newcomer, devotee = live in temple).

The fact is that -- like it or not -- devotees who see this need to build a healthy, accepting community are doing it. They are finding ways to communicate Krishna consciousness in a way that is chaste to the tradition and its principles, but recognizes and values people at whatever stage of spiritual life they may be in. It is up to ISKCON as an organization to validate, encourage, and lend institutional weight to these experiences. They will happen anyway, but ISKCON leadership* can choose to either be a part of the solution or an awkward reminder of the problem.

* - And yes, I am the N.A. Communications Director for ISKCON, so I am as much a part of the potential solution as anyone else.


gratitude, integrity, and learning to grow up

I want to thank everyone who left helpful comments and words of encouragement on my last post. It really does mean a lot. Coming to grips with one's own limitations can be frightening, and it is still something that I (we) contsantly struggle with. So just knowing that others are feeling it too keeps me in perspective and helps.

Some devotees suggested that I keep two blogs. I've actually thought about doing that before -- one blog featuring the realizations of Vyenkata Bhatta dasa, the other sharing the random verbiage of Vineet Chander. In the end, though, I felt it would be too schizophrenic. (That's not to knock those who successfully do the two blog thing... it works for some people, for me I don't think it would).

I spent a large portion of my young adulthood trying to manage a double-life and -- ask anyone I went to University with -- it wasn't pretty. Invariably, I ended up sacrificing honesty and depth to keep the "Bhakta Jekyll and DJ Hyde" routine up, with the end result being that I felt completely dissatisfied and shallow on both fronts.

One of the reasons I started a blade of grass to begin with was to explore my own aspiration to be a devotee of God and servant of His creation. From what I have understood of Krishna consciousness, as taught by Srila Prabhupada and my own guru Radhanath Swami, that aspiration necessitates embracing humility. And part of being humble, I believe, is being self-aware, honest, and acting with spiritual integrity.

Integrity is an interesting word. Here is how the dictionary defines it:

in·teg·ri·ty [in-teg-ri-tee] noun
1.adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
2.the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished.
3.a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition.

I think the three definitions are intertwined. I can't really be honest unless I'm willing to look at the whole picture; I can't hope to be restored to my complete, perfect nature unless I strive to be a whole person.

If there are some awkward moments or growing pains along the way, so be it. I think I will survive and be better off for it.


PS: Of course, I would be interested in being part of a Wonder Years and Krishna Consciousness group blog if anyone is interested. Leave me a comment...

[voice over narration: The thing is, even as I typed those words, I knew that things would never be the same. The times were changing, and as much as we didn't want to admit it, we were changing too. We were learning how to become humble, learning how to grow in our spiritual lives. And I guess part of that growth meant that we would have to learn which dreams to let go of... and which ones to offer to Krishna.]



where's the Krishna consciousness?

Haribol. Not sure how to begin this post, or even if it really is a post or not. I've been wrestling with this for a little while, going back and forth, writing and then deleting (only to write almost the exact same thing, only to delete it all again).

Here's the problem in a nutshell: I don't feel Krishna conscious right now. No, I don't mean that I'm losing my religion (cue classic REM song by the same name) or anything like that. I just mean that today, right now, in this blog post -- I just don't feel like writing anything particularly devotional.

Is that weird? Is that a symptom of some greater problem? Do I need a Bhakta Program intervention or something?

Either way, I'm faced with a bit of a dilemma. I could either blog about exactly what I am thinking or doing (which may be just whining about still having a headache, or boring you by analyzing the soy sandwich I made myself for lunch, or confessing to how much I enjoy watching re-runs of the Wonder Years) without editing myself or worrying about where the Krishna conscious purport is.

Or I could find something meaningful and genuinely spiritual to write about, and I can't find it, at least wait until I can come up with something like that.

There's that third option -- finding the Krishna consciousness in the mundane -- and I usually like to at least try to do that, but lately I've been feeling that it only works when it is real. Krishna can (and does) show up in the oddest of places, and when that happens its pretty awesome. But when it doesn't, I don't feel like forcing it or being corny about it, like one of those "pop goes the Gita" type of essays devotee writers (myself included) churn out from time to time.

I guess knowing that Krishna devotees are reading these posts (especially as its fed through Planet ISKCON) makes me even more self-conscious. How do I feel about the worldwide Vaisnava community knowing that I have nothing better to write about on a Friday evening than a TV show from the 1980s?

I want to be real. At the same time, I am aware of the dangers of letting complacency and spiritual deviations sneak in, all in the name of "being myself." I remember in one lecture that my guru (Radhanath Swami) gave someone asked him about how to be enthusiastic in spiritual life when we just don;t feel like it. "Shouldn't we just be honest and be ourselves rather than pretend to be something that we're not?" Maharaj was strong but playful in his response: "Be ourselves? How can we 'be ourselves' when we are only beginning to learn who we are? No we don't want to merely be ourselves -- the conditioned selves we think we are -- we want to be the selves, the empowered enthusiastic loving servants, who Krishna wants us to be." I thought it was a great answer and it does help to me make things more clear for me, but it is not always so easy for me to put it into practice.

So, that's my story and I'm sticking with it. Sometimes (often) I don't have any realizations, or purports, or Krishna katha to share. Sometimes I'm dry and might end up speaking something else instead. Should I be okay with that? Is that a glimmer of humility, or just a lot of hot air?

I'm not sure if I've raised more questions than I can answer. Maybe I should turn this over to my readers. What do you think? Please leave me a comment and share your thoughts.


red hooded sweatshirt

Overslept and woke up late this morning... only to greeted by a grey, drizzly, uninviting day. As if that wasn't bad enough, I woke up with a headache again. I'm not sure what's going on, but after a 5-day migraine, just when I thought I was free of them, one returns with a vengeance.

(I have chronic headaches. I don't how exactly how long it has been, but I know that in recent years -- 2000 and onwards -- it has gotten worse. Sometimes they last for a few hours, sometimes for several days on end. Perhaps in the future, if anyone would find it helpful or interesting, I can blog about the headaches.)

Anyway, today I'm hiding out in the loving embrace of my supernaturally soft, worn in, red hooded sweatshirt. I got it at the GAP and it is part of their (red) campaign to benefit women and children affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa. For that reason, and because it makes me feel like I'm being hugged, I consider this sweatshirt my official comfort clothing. It has officially replaced the indestructible Carnegie Mellon hoodie that has survived since freshman year and has seen me through more good and bad times than I wish to recount.

I think I might just flip the hood up, stash my beads in the kangaroo pouch pocket, and take a japa walk.

(Me and my red hooded sweatshirt, surrounded by some of my bestest friends in the world. And, no, I don't know why I am growling.)

PS: Here's a treat for all you old skool SNL fans out there. Adam Sandler, reading my mind:

(Great song, great memories, and even features cameo appearances by Sir Paul and the late Linda McCartney. RIP Linda, thank you for everything you did to make the world a more compassionate place.)


the Problem of Pain

Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is all-good, all-just, and all-powerful why does He allow suffering? How could He sit by and do nothing while terrorists and madmen take innocent lives, or while tsunamis and earthquakes leave children orphaned and helpless?

This is usually called the problem of pain, or the problem of evil.

Inspired by my reading of C.S. Lewis (one of my favorites), the Bhagavad Gita, and a collection of other Vaishnava writings, I attempted to shed some light on the subject recently. I led a three-part lecture series at the NYC Krishna Temple (aka 26 2nd Ave.) last month, entitled Beyond Karma: Spiritual Perspectives on the Problem of Pain.

It was a daunting topic, but a challenge I enjoyed taking on. I tried to go against my usual tendency to ramble on, and tried to encourage more participation and open discussion.

The first session focused on the problem of pain in the abstract, and explored the ideas of freewill, justice, and the law of karma. The second session attempted to go deeper -- how do we deal with suffering, not in an abstract sense, but when it hits close to home? How does a devotee of Krishna view his or her own suffering? The third and final session touched on how the spiritualist views (and responds to) the suffering of others.

The result was (I hope) a pretty rich exploration of how devotees of Krishna understand suffering and pain. Here are the mp3 recordings:

1. Laying the Foundation: The Problem of Pain
2. "Why me, Lord?" When Pain Gets Personal
3. Beyond Karma: the Power of Compassion

Give the classes a listen when you can, and let me know what you think.


I'll be your best friend

Just got through reading Joel Stein's brilliant piece "You Are Not My Friend" on friend-based websites like Facebook or My Space or Friendster. In his usual sarcastic cheeky style, Stein points out how these sites have changed the way we look at ourselves and our relationships.

I've been thinking about this stuff lately because -- deep breath -- about a month ago I bit the bullet and actually started using Facebook. This, after I resisted for so long and even derided many friends and relatives for their Facebook and My Space addictions. In the end though, the force was just too strong to resist, the opportunity to be "in touch" with so many people too tempting.

I've definitely noticed some advantages to using Facebook. I feel much more connected with several friends, and feel inspired to share some of what's going on in my life (the way that I did, er, I mean the way I do with this blog). It is also great to see how much people really do have in common despite apparent difference and enjoy being in eachother's lives. And, well, it is fun.

On the other hand, there are things about Facebook that still leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. The posturing and posing, the parade of egos, the over sexualization of youth. The emphasis on making everything showy and public. The numbers game, adding people you barely know or talk to just to boost popularity. People I never spoke a word to in High School suddenly realize we have tone in common. Last week the guy who designed my wedding card (and speaks about three words of English) requested an add. There's an absurdity about the whole thing that makes me worried about what friendship even means anymore.

Remember when you were in the second grade and you wanted another kid to pick you for something or give you something, so you tried to tempt them by promising I'll be your best friend...? Is Facebook taking us all back to the second grade?

Rupa Goswami, who was a great acarya in the Gaudiya Vaishnava (Hare Krishna) tradition, wrote about 6 symptoms of love (priti-laksanam) that mark a healthy, deep friendship. Friends give and receive gifts, feed one another and accept food, and share confidences while inquiring about one another.

Of course, there's no reason that friends couldn't do that on Facebook, I suppose. After all, there are even gift-giving applications, and a "poke" must count as some sort of symptom of love, right? Still, I fear that as my Facebook profile grows, I'm starting to lose touch with simple human courtesies.

Last night I got a call from a friend who has recently been through a major situation in his life. He was pretty hurt that (despite knowing about it) I hadn't called him to talk. I tried to defend myself -- I really had planned to sit down and write him a heartfelt letter when I "got some time to collect my thoughts." Ultimately, though, I had to own up to the ugly truth: in this case, I just wasn't being a good friend. All my good intentions may pave the path to hell, because when it counted I wasn't really personal or loving or considerate. I just didn't make him a priority.

Is Facebook to blame, even partially, for my horrendous lapse in judgment? Is having 110 (at last count) "friends" preventing me from being a good one to any of them? Maybe.

I suspect, though, that the real problem is not Facebook or even the culture that makes having one seem like a social necessity. At the end of the day, I'm the one at the keyboard, or on the phone, or at the post office, making my own choices. I just hope I can make the right ones most of the time.


back... from beyond the grave?

What could possibly bring me -- perhaps the world's most inconsistent blogger, arguably the slackest slacker in all of ISKCON -- back to the blog? How about staying at a haunted hotel?

Okay, allow me to back up and catch all my regular BOG readers up to speed. After Italy (which was amazing), I returned to a pile of things to do on my desk higher than the leaning tower of pisa (which, by the way, we didn't see). So, back to the ISKCON Communications tour circuit for me.

Which brings me here... In San Antonio, Texas for the Religion Newswriters Association's annual convention. Anuttama Prabhu and I usually enjoy these events (this will be my third) because they provide an invaluable insight into what religion reporters are looking for in a story. Great contacts, fun people, and some nice opportunities to help others better understand and present Krishna consciousness. This year, however, Anuttama had some other obligations so I'm flying solo. That wouldn't be so bad, except for the fact that my hotel is said to be inhabited by the disembodied.

The Menger Hotel, a landmark historical structure, was built in 1859 -- 20 years after the bloody battle at the nearby Alamo, and boasts a bunch of ghost sightings. In fact, when I was checking in the helpful receptionist mentioned that my room came equipped with cable TV, high speed internet, oh and by the way -- a history of ghost sightings. You know, the usual.

Having experienced ghostly entities before (at least one of which was bilingual), I'm a believer. At the same time, though, I'm not too sure about this place. Is the whole thing just a big gimmick? Is it just a way to put a charming twist on the fact that this rambling piece of Texan history is actually pretty dumpy compared to the shiny new Sheraton down the block? The peeling wallpaper, musty smell, ancient furniture, cracked bathroom tiles, creaky floorboards.... oh, that just adds to the allure of the haunted hotel. I'm not quite convinced.

Still just to play it safe, I've brought a conch shell and my traveling Nrsimhadeva picture. Oh, and did I mention that I slept withe the lights and the TV on?

Me? I aint 'fraid of no ghosts.


the Italian Job

10th August, 2007
Administrative Office, Villa Vrindavan (outside of Florence, Italy)

Being on a spiritual path is supposed to make you more attuned to what a Higher Intelligence is trying to communicate to you. Yogis can pick up on the subtlest of messages; they can read the signs and sense the shift in cosmic winds. So, after almost 17 years of chanting Hare Krishna, one might think that I'd gained some level of proficiency in this art. No such luck. Apparently, I need to be hit with a ton of bricks -- each one spray painted with the answer on it -- before I get a clue.

And a ton of Italian bricks is pretty much what I got hit with when it came to blogging. The message: don't try.

The omens began early. The internet connection was slow and painful at Prabhupada Desh, and every time I'd sit to type, my laptop would start to freak out. Blogger took "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" a bit too seriously and decided that it would only speak to me in Italian. The spell check disabled itself. Spacing and formatting took an ugly turn. I started falling behind in my jotting down notes.

The signs grew more and more ominous. I sat dutifully at the keyboard, determined to post; each time mosquitoes took the opportunity to ravage and pillage any exposed part of my body.

By the time we reached Vicenza, all I could do was get online long enough to promise more backposts and upload a picture of a pizza flipping Italian stereotype.

In Venice, our fine hotel offered us access to the world wide web... as long as we paid them handsomely in Euros (which for Americans, considering the exchange rate, is practically like asking someone to give over her first born child).

And here at Villa Vrindavan, pure love of God is more readily attainable than a steady internet connection. Meanwhile, the mosquitoes here are so big that I think the last one I swatted away was wearing size 10 Nikes, and the prospect of meeting Machiavelli's disembodied spirit on the way back to my room is not exactly comforting.

But it gets better: in Venice we mysteriously lost our camera case (thankfully we still have the camera).. which means we lost our upload USB cable, so no posting any of our pix.

And then there's this: also in Venice, when I went for a swim, I forgot to take the brand new 2 gig flash drive I bought from America out of my pocket. (Helpful hint: if you ever wanted to know what happens when you put a flash drive under water, don't).

Of course, the biggest sign of all: even before we exited the plane, my better half pleaded with me to relax and not to worry about blogging. This being our first true vacation in a while, I am starting to realize that she may have had a point there.

As one of the great songs of the Vaisnava Acaryas goes: "You gotta know when to hold em, and know when to fold em." I think it's time to fold.

Still, here I am... its almost 12:30 am (if I get to sleep tonight, in three hours, I will wake up) and me and the mosquitoes are at it again. Tomorrow we (me, Krsangi, and the mosquitoes) leave for Rome. And from there, back to the States.

So here is the deal: if the stars allow, I may just post something in Rome. Maybe some highlights of the trip so far (which incidentally, has been simply incredible) or bullet points on how we've been spending our days. Otherwise, I'll see you back home.



and now a word from our sponsors


One of the trickiest things about keeping a travel journal is traveling and keeping a journal. On the one hand, you have experiences that are just the sort of thing you should be writing about -- exciting, meaningful, and (perhaps) spiritually moving experiences. On the other hand, having those experiences doesn't always leave so much time for writing about them. Factor in the character flaws of being a perfectionist and a procrastinator, and... well, I guess what I'm trying to say here is that I'm sorry for not blogging (and emailing) better while we are here in Italy.

I hope to catch up (my famous back posting) soon. Til then, here's a rushed update before I go to bed:

The conference ended last night with a sweet goodbye dinner (ate too much) and some prolonged goodbyes (talked too much). Today marks the first day of our official holiday. Although we shifted from the temple, we're still here in Albettone, a town outside of Vincenza proper, we are now staying at the beautiful home of our godbrother and sister Giridhari and Gandharvika. Today we ate loads of homemade prasadam pizza, did some shopping, and took some amazing japa walks while touring abbeys and cathedrals.

Tomorrow morning we live for Venice. For part of our time there we will be staying in a hotel, so right now I am saying a selfish prayer to Lord Krishna for wireless internet access there. (Hey, whether one has no desires, all desires, or desires liberation...)

By the way, because I've had some pretty austere internet connections here so far, I've had some problems uploading pictures and even running a spell check on these entries. Sorry about that too. Hopefully, I can fix that soon enough and start posting up some pix.

Please check back soon. And thanks and love to everyone who is encouraging me to keep this blog going.

Radhe Syama!


From Italy with love

7/25 - 7/26 JFK Airport to Prabhupada Desh

Bonjourno! I am typing this from the quiet solitude of the area I've nicknamed Tatastha at the top of the stairs in Prabhupada Desh. I call it Tatastha, because it is a foyer which is basically the dividing point between where the ladies' and mens' guestrooms are. Krsangi and I say our goodnights and Haribols here. It is also the place to catch the strongest internet connection, so at any given time during the day, this landing looks like a cyber cafe. Right now, though, I'm the only one here (unless you count the mosquitoes... what is it with me and mosquitoes?), sitting in no-man's land, trying to do my duty to the blog readers by posting about our Italy trip so far.

Faith on a flight
Our flight over was good. I've gotten so used to traveling alone that having Krsangi's association was actually a novelty and a welcome change. We chanted, napped, and ate an ekadasi feast of potatoes, potatoes, and salad. For some reason, our plane was filled with Hasidic Jews. (I think the flight had a connecting flight to Isreal). It was really fascinating to see them in action. Actually, it gave us a lot of relaizations and an opportunity to reflect on our own practice as members of a highly demanding faith. For instance, we noticed that the adults all used their time to read scripture, pray, or do some constructive activity directly related to their faith or culture. They ate their specially ordered kosher meals (and other food they brought with them) quietly and thoughtfully. At a certain point (I guess a time of day... more educated readers can comment), all the men stoood up, put their jackets on, and began to pray together, making very dramatic gestures and movements. They did this without apology or any sign of feeling awkward. It got me thinking about our own identity as Caitanya Vaisnavas, and more specifically as ISKCON members (to use the simplest term, as "devotees"). We too have our belief the faith is to be lived 24/7, and if one were to alanyze a Krishna devotee on a flight, he or she might reflect on the same kinds of things: eating specially prepared foods, reading religious literature (usually exclusively), chanting on beads, saying prayers at certain times (perhaps together, if possible). In fact, I remembered a story about the devotees taking a flight to India -- one of the first Mayapur meetings -- and taking up half the flight. They were so many of them, that they did kirtan, chanted japa uip and down the aisles, and maybe even showed a Prabhupada film (not too sure about that last one though). In one sense, thats kind of cool; in another, its a bit too -- I don't know -- in your face. I guess I have yet to negotiate the tension between being unapologetic and maintaining a distinct, radically different identity, while still being conscientiuous and intentionally assimilating to the society around us

Anyway, we caught a connecting flight from Zurich to Venice. The 40 minute flight was uneventful, but afforded us a fantastic view of the Alps.

Three out of four
At the airport in Venice, we waited anxiously by the carousel for our bags. Sure enough, within a few minutes, the belt started up and the bags shot out. Remarkably, the first three were ours! That has never happened to us before, so we took it as an auspicious sign. Which just goes to show you that I have no future in reading auspicious signs, because the fourth bag never arrived. After standing in line, being re-directed to another line, being sent back to the first line, filing a complaint, getting yellled at by some pissed-off American lady who accused me of cutting the line, answering back said pissed-off lady calmly, getting apology from no-longer-pissed-off lady, and finally being told the bag was still in Zurich and would be dropped off to us, we left.

Bonjourno Italiana style
We nervously walked out into the arrival lounge, and almost immediately recognized our godbrother Giridhari Prabhu. Although it has been several years since Giridhari and his wife Gandharvika stayed with us in NY, seeing his jolly smile and feeling his warm brotherly embrace, I felt like we were the best of friends. He happily led us to the car, and introduced us to a handsome, dignified Italian man -- with silver hair, a bronze tan, and looking like he just stepped out of an Armani ad -- named Sri Adwaita prabhu. We will be staying with Sri Adwaita and his wife in Venice, so I hope to blog about him in more detail later.

Soon, we were coasting down an Italian highway (which felt like a weird cross betwen being in California, India, and the UK), chatting away like old friends as we braved traffic jams on the way to the temple.

Throughout the ride, i was struck by how welcoming and friendly Giridhari is. Sometimes, when you enter a new country you have to deal with some coldness or feeling ut of place for a little while before the ice melts. That was my own experience for the last two years that I've been partiicipating in the conference. But here, there was no need. In this land of hundreds of thousandds of beautiful people, we felt re-assured that we had our own guradian Italian angel looking out for us.

Sanyassinis in Prabhupada country
Pulling up to Prabhupada Desh, a villa about an hour outside of Venice, was exciting. Having only seen this place in pictures, Krsangi and I were very impressed seeing it all in person. The temple is not huge or architecturallly stunning (although it is nice), but the place has real charm to it. Marble everywhere, beuatiful huge paintings of Prabhupada in many rooms and areas, sweeping stairwell, classical looking Italian fixtures. Since

Incidentally, the temple is called "Prabhupada Desh" which translates literally into "Prabhupada's country." I find the name a bit humurous because of the conotatons that des(h)i has for me. Imagine asomeone being an American Born Confused Prabhuada Desi? :-)

We were soon shown to our rooms -- I'm staying with Anuttama Prabhu and Krsangi with Mother Rukmini. One funny thing about our accommodations: they have Krs and M. Rukmini staying in the sannayasi quarters (Jayadvaita Swami, the only sannyasi in the place right now is staying in another room). The two "sanyassinis" thus get to experience the luxury (relative) of a private bathroom, nice furniture, ceiling fans that actually work, and a proper sitting room area. Sweet. My room is small, stuffy, hot, and faces the noisy main road; but on the plus side it is nice to get to spend time with Anuttama Prabhu, and the room is clean and simple with a nice view of the Italian countryside.

The conference had not yet started, so we had an afternoon to do whatever we wanted. After rest, showering, an changing into some comfortable clothes (Reason #476 why I already fell in love with Italy: guys can actually wear linin pants here), we met back up with Giridhari, who had a special treat planned for us. Although he had work to do, he came to drop us off to a nearby place to relax. Because we told him that we felt we needed to unwind and decompress, he suggested that we go to experience a form of relaxation therapy that --as far as I could tell -- was simply called "bubbles." From his descriptions, I gathered that this was a natural hot springs (Krs and I went in Alachua, and we loved it), so we agreed.

Note: Although Giridhari and I have pretty good communication skills, at times things get lost in translation. Case in point...

When we got to the place, we realized that it wasn't a natural hot springs, afterall -- it was a sor of resort center in a hotel. Still, we were definitely in the mood to try it out. After paying some nominal entrance fee, we went in, changed to swimsuits, and hit the pool. Actually, the place is a large omplex of pools, whirlpools, and massage jetstreams. The mood was very nice, and soon enough we got over the bit of self-consciousness we brought in with us. We were able to relax -- something that, between Kazakhstan and Sunday School, we are generally in urgent need of -- and give our bodies and minds some (regulated) pampering.

Heavenly planet
After several hours chanting "I am still not this body... I'm pretty sure, I'm not this body," while streams of temperate water eased knots of tension out of my back, it was time to return to dry land. But the enjoyment was just beginning.

Yes, it happened. For the first time in our lives, Krsangi and I ate pizza in Italy.

It tasted surprisingly like the pizza I grew up eating in non-descript NYC pizzarias. That is to say, it was delicious. Delicate, sweet tomato sauce; rich, expressive mozzarella cheese; a thin, light crispy crust. Lifetimes of prayers fulfilled...

Of course, just to be safe, we washed down the pizza with homemade ice cream from a small shp owned by devotees near the temple. An outdoor musician strummed an acoustic guitars for a crowd of Summer evening patrons, as we let the prasadam hazlenut and mint ice creams officially welcome us to Italy -- which I am now more convinced than ever is a bonafide heavenly planet.

Holy insomnia, Batman
We got back lat enough that the temple was asleep but not late enough to be sleepy ourselves. After saying goodnight to Krsangi at Tatastha, I head back to the room, but just couldn;t sleep. So, while Anuttama Prabhu dozed, I sat by the open window (no screens or bars in this place -- open the shutters and you are there) in our room and just tried to take in the beauty of Krishna's creation in a place like this. As I gazed out towards the moonlight sky and the sillhouttes of the post-card-perfect hills in the distance, I heard a flapping and swooping noise. Looking up, directly above my window, 5 or 6 bats were engaged in an elaborate air show. Bats. I watched for a while, amazed to actually be here, and then finallly forced myself to sleep.

Don't Mess With Texas Day 4: Entourage

Final in the Texas trip series... Sorry for the delay!

Don't Mess With Texas Day 4:
"Entourage" (7/8/07)

Every day of my trip to Texas, I was awakened by the sensation of mosquitoes feasting on my body (the same body that I am supposed to know that I am not). Sunday morning, however, the bites were even more stinging because they were accompanied by the realization that this would be my last full day here.

Despite my tiredness from last night's late program I managed to make it to the temple for mangal ara -- er, I mean Greeting of the De-- um, make that Guru Puj--- okay, okay, Bhagavatam class. Govinda Maharaj gave a nice simple class on the verse, and spent the Q & A time telling stories of joining the temple in Buffalo.

Breakfast was upma -- not one of my favorites -- but I spent the time with a nice devotee named Krishna Kripa prabhu and we discussed the history of ISKCON Houston a bit. After that I met with Guru Bhakti Mataji -- an amazing devotee who manages to find time between her full-time responsibilities as a medical doctor, a wife, and a mom to do wonderful service with the media, interfaith community, Hindu community, and other forms of outreach. In fact, she was the main organizer of the benefit dinner last night. Like many of the worshipful Vaisnavas and Vaisnavis I've met here, Guru Bhakti deeply imbibed her guru TKG's mood and desire. I am truly humbled by these souls.

I assisted Govinda Maharaj with a radio call-in show he had to do (it went very well), and then we both walked to the temple for the Sunday Feast program.

Walking in to the temple was such a trip. Govinda Maharaj went in first and I followed close behind, kind of hovering in his wake. As soon as the devotees saw Maharaj (those who are familiar with who he is) dove to the floor. He went and offered his obeisances to the murti of Srila Prabhupada, and I followed suit, taking the bold step of touching Maharaj's foot lightly to my head afterwards -- just a bit of extra blessings I stole for myself. Thankfully he didn't notice, and we both started walking deeper in to the temple room. As we did more devotees came forward, some with folded palms requesting blessings and others offering words of support for the devotees in Kazakhstan. Flashbulbs went off a few times, as devotee paparazzi quickly snapped photos of the spiritual celebrity. From time to time, Govinda Maharaj would turn to me with a question, or ask me to do something, or just share a comment (sometimes even a joke!) with me.

Maybe it was the fact that we were on TKG's turf, but I couldn't help but think of those pictures and videos of Srila Prabhupada visiting a temple, with an entourage -- usually someone like TKG leading that entourage -- close behind him. I admit it, I felt a dizzying rush thinking of myself in that situation. I'm actually a part of history, I thought to myself, as I let the depth of it sink in.

Then my "wow, this is cool" feeling began to transform into a deeper, more sober realization. Like the members of an entourage surrounding a celebrity get to enjoy access into certain exclusive areas, the members of a devotional entourage can get passes into Krishna's exclusive circles. Staying in the association of devotees -- especially devotees whom we regard as senior practitioners of bhakti -- means that we have a chance to go back to Godhead on the strength of that association.

Of course, most members of an entourage are famously un-famous themselves; their sole claim to fame is who they know. In the case of Vaisnavas, we also know that we have no position ourselves, that our only hope is who we know... that if we just muster up enough faith and sincerity to stay in the sanga, we will be carried by the power of their bhakti.

In any event, the Sunday Feast program went very nicely. The humidity, whirling fans, marble, and pressed bodies evoked memories of Sunday Feasts I've experienced in India.

Maharaj's kirtan was especially fiery and I danced more wildly then I've danced in a long time. The final appeal went well -- fearing that this would be my last opportunity to perform this service, I put all my energy and emotion into my part. I'm not sure if everyone appreciated it, but many devotees came forward and the Dallas and Houston youth groups even got into a "bidding war" to try to outdo one another's donations to the Kazakhstan fund.

I barely caught my breath and ate a few grains of rice before I was pulled in to a fired-up Youth Kirtan. Like a pied piper, Maharaj expertly led and choreographed one of the most invigorating, exciting, inviting, and enjoyable kirtans I've ever experienced. After chanting Hare Krishna a lot, Govinda Maharaj started to even throw in Bhagavad Gita verses (and translations)!

Finally, we ended up at the house where Govinda Swami was staying. I helped him catalog all the contributions, and then said my goodbyes. Maharaj -- so personal and caring -- gave me a big bear hug and emphasized his appreciation of my service, and how much he hoped we would see each other again in Toronto. It was quite moving, and (although undeserving) I was touched by Maharaj's gratitude and encouragement. Its an important thing to be recognized for your work, and Maharaj made me feel valued, noticed, and loved.

That night, I crashed out at a godbrother's simple but devotional apartment, and landed up at the airport early the next morning.

The exhaustion of the last few days hit me hard, and I slept most of the flight home. I woke up only as my plane was beginning its descent to New York's Laguardia airport, surprised (and perhaps a bit disappointed) not to find a new mosquito bite.


Don't Mess with Texas Day 3: Lucky 7s in Houston

Continuing to back-post...

Don't Mess with Texas Day 3:
"Lucky 7s in Houston" (7/7/07)

I awoke this morning to find the vast majority of my left arm had been devoured by what must be the hungriest, ugliest mosquitoes in Dallas. I lay in bed, staring up at the whirling ceiling fan, trying to figure out if I was dreaming or awake. It was one of those "Where am I? What am I doing here? Why is my arm red, swollen, and itchy?" type of moments.

Fortunately, after a brisk shower I regained my consciousness and the bug bites (plural -- the arm was just the main course; apparently my legs, neck, hands, and feet were appetizers) looked more manageable.

The program the night before had gone well. Govinda Maharaj was in top form, leading a rousing Hare Krishna kirtan peppered generously with some "Radhe Radhe / Syama Syama" rows. In fact, at one point Maharaj induced the ladies to call out the Radhe part, and the men to chant Kalachandji -- and everyone's hearts just melted.

Those soft hearts were receptive to the Kazakhstan cause, and many gave generously. Helping the devotees in Kazakhstan is critical, and this is a cause I believe in wholeheartedly. Still, I felt more than a bit awkward being the buzz-kill who pleads for money-- especially after Maharaj won the crowd over with his smooth voice, enchanting stories, charming wit, and unassuming good nature. Anyway, Lord Krishna was definitely in control: when I thought I was doing a good job, He arranged for there to be challenges and a lackluster response. When I thought I was not so convincing, people came forward and helped. Lesson: I am not, not, not the supreme controller. Better to be detached and remember that without Krishna, I simply can't do it. I'm just here to be an instrument, like Sultana's saxophone or Bimal's harmonium. If I can produce a sound that pleases Krishna or the devotees, my credit is just that I am allowing myself to be utilized by the real Musician.

Random highlight from last night: At one point a devotee's cell-phone went off and the ring tone was the trademark of the Motorola Razr that begins "Hello Moto..." This devotee (in front row) tried to find it to shut it, but took a bit too long, so the ring tone was pretty hard to miss. I thought Maharaj might get irritated, but instead when he saw the devotee, he recognized that they had known one another in Vrindavan. Maharaj shared some memories and said how happy he was to see the devotee (who was beaming by now). Finally, Maharaj said: "When I last saw you, you were so thin! Now, you have put on a lot of weight. Even you're phone calls you 'Hello, motu...' [fatso]" Everyone got a real kick out of that, and I could appreciate that Maharaj has a great sense of humor and is generally a very chill, understanding Swami.

Anyway, after chanting a few distracted rounds and packing my bags, I head over to Kalachandji's for a late breakfast. Since it was closed, consummate host Nityananda Prabhu brought me to this house where he (and his son, Chaitan) fed me a freshly made pizza brunch!

After the typical ISKCON Standard Time delay, we left for Houston. The devotee driving -- a member of the Houston congregation who came over to Dallas just to serve Maharaj and us in this way -- did a great job of getting us there safe and sound, despite the fact that the uninspired stretch of highway between Dallas and Houston put everyone else in the vehicle right to sleep.

Arriving in Houston, I was surprised to find that arrangements had been made for me to stay at the home of a godbrother, Adi Guru prabhu. Interestingly, Adi Guru and family - who I had hung out with a few days earlier in New Vrindaban - were still traveling (hence his being in New Vrindaban), so I stayed there without them.

Ate, shaved, and was about to hop in the shower, when a frantic knocking at the front door demanded my attention. It was Houston TP Shyamasundara Prabhu who, seeing me in a towel, let me know that Maharaj was waiting to talk to me. I guess that IST thing doesn't always hold, so I quickly showered and dressed up and went to the hall to meet Govinda MAharaj.

The devotees set up Gauranga Hall, which serves as a rental facility for big gatherings, for a beautiful semi-formal sit-down dinner. On the guest list were several friends and supporters outside of the usual temple community (fror them, we will do something at the Sunday Feast), yoga scene movers and shakers, and interfaith representatives. Fresh table linens, classy decorations, centerpieces, and even a silent auction helped to make this event very attractive and a big success.

I made a modified appeal that was very well received; confirmation that my trip to Houston was well worth the endeavor and money.

Walking back to Adi Guru's place (many Houston devotees elect to live within walking distance of the temple) I felt exhausted but also inspired. Suddenly, I remembered that today was July 7, 2007. In other words, it was 7-7-7 -- and because Western culture considers 7 to be a lucky number, a date that is supposed to be considered good luck (which translates to "very auspicious" in ISKCON-ese). I said a quick prayer that some of the 777 magic could be sent to the devotees in Kazakhstan; they certainly need whatever good luck is available out there.

One funny incident to cap off my night: walking back with Bimal prabhu and Sultana mataji, Sultana was in a somewhat giddy mood. She began to reflect -- in her broken English -- on possible connections between the name of the city of Houston, and pop diva Whitney Houston. It turns out that Sultana was (is?) a huge Whitney fan, grew up idolizing her, and considers the pop star to be her "singing guru." Hearing that bit of history I couldn't resist, so I pleaded with Sultana to sing a Whitney song... and she (giddy again!) obliged. Her voice is almost as amazing as her sax playing ability is, and she nailed a few Whitney ballads.

I fell asleep almost a soon as my head hit the pillow, the DJ in my head spinning some weird mash-up of Mama mana mandire and songs from the "Bodyguard" sound track.


Of Shamans and Lobbyists

Trip to Washington, D.C. yesterday– and thanks to the overpriced but convenient Amtrak shuttle from NY to DC, I was in an out of the nation’s capitol in a day. I was there to attend a briefing on the state of human rights and religious freedom in South Asia… and, of course, to network with the officials there, especially in regards to the Kazakhstan situation.

Anuttama Prabhu was out of town, so I had to fly solo on this mission. That worried me a little. For some reason, I feel uncomfortable about the whole Washington D.C. vibe. It is hard to explain, but somehow I feel like all the hand-shaking, card-passing, and back-scratching is just a bit too surreal for me. Media in New York I can handle, but get me in a room full of DC lobbyists and politicians and I suddenly end up with sweaty palms and a stutter. This opportunity was too good to pass up though, so – with butterflies fluttering in my stomach – I arrived in D.C. shortly after noon.

Anuttama had instructed me to wear devotional clothes to the event, and (since I hate traveling in a dhoti) I had to change at Union Station. I remembered the last time I had to do the “Clark Kent into Superman” routine in a restroom at Union Station – not very nice. So, I decided to take a chance and went into a nearby Express store. After browsing around for a bit, I asked the young guy folding polo shirts if I could use their fitting room. He agreed, and a few minutes later, I stepped out of there in a dhoti, kurta, and my trademark Nehru vest. (Hey, just because you are dressing in devotional clothes doesn’t mean you can’t do it with some pizzazz.)

Since I still I had to freshen up my tilak, I had to visit the men’s room anyway. As I stood in front of the dirt caked mirror and attempted to draw the straight lines on my forehead, a disheveled old Black man staggered into the restroom. His eyes were a disconcerting yellow and red, and he stopped and stared at me for a few minutes before he began muttering to himself unintelligibly. I tried to ignore him and concentrate on my tilak, but he continued to stare and mutter. Finally, he came up close to me and started speaking slower and more clearly.

“Some kind of shaman… This is some kind of shaman…”

I ignored him again and tried to fix the tulasi leaf at the bridge of my nose. Now he questioned me directly.

“Are you… are you… man, are you a shaman? You’re a shaman, you’re a shaman aren’t you?”

I glanced at his reflection in the mirror standing next to me. His face seemed genuinely intrigued studying my hand’s movements as I drew the sacred U-shaped symbol on my face, and – now that I noticed it – he looked a bit awed. The other people in the restroom went about their business, either oblivious to our exchange or pretending not to notice. Faced with a direct question, I answered simply and quietly, addressing my response to the reflection.

“Something like that.”

The awe on his grizzly face seemed to intensify, almost morphing into a look of delighted terror.

“I knew it! You’re a shaman! Oh man, a shaman! A shaman! Hey, hey… hey, is that magic? Is that real magic?”

I finished up the tilak, and rinsed off my hands.

“That depends,” I said, turning towards him for the first time. My eyes locked with his and I looked deeply at him, trying to penetrate his gaze. “Do you believe in magic?”

Speechless but excited, he stepped away backwards as if a wave had just crashed into him. He kept watching me, his eyes wide, as I walked out of the restroom and out towards the metro.

Later, while on the metro to Capitol Hill, I thought about what the man in the restroom had said and how he had reacted. I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, I was goofing around and messing with his head a bit. But maybe there was more to it than that. Maybe I did possess some magic, some untapped shakti, that I could draw on. Maybe, if I could just be here on behalf of Lord Caitanya and the paramapara instead of my own ego and insecurities, I could get through this day. Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite so nervous about working that room full of politicians anymore.

The meeting went well. I made some important contacts and got into some interesting conversations. I passed out my card and stated my case with confidence and ease.

And then I took the train back, one of many harried commuters on a night shuttle back home to New York. Among the businesswomen in smart suits and attorneys with their ties loosened, clicking away on Blackberries or reading Harry Potter novels to unwind… unbeknownst to them, a sleepy shaman with his hand in a bead-bag and his eyes struggling to stay open.


Don't Mess with Texas Day 2: Upgrade to First Class

Don't Mess with Texas Day 2:
"Upgrade to First Class" (7/6/07)

TKG's Quarters, Dallas – There is something about these rooms that just seem inhabited by TKG’s spirit. I don’t mean that in a "haunted house" sort of way; I mean that his essence and his mood waft through each of these rooms like the lingering fragrance of really good incense. The quarters are actually more than just a bedroom – an intricate maze of corridors and doorways help one to navigate through a little world containing a bedroom (off limits), a guest room (where I am staying), an executive office (with TKG’s massive desk), a bathroom, a sitting room (comfortable couches, his favorite easy chair), and a formal dining room for entertaining guests (TKG was the consummate host).

This morning I woke up, chanted some rounds, and then went to the temple room for Bhagavatam class (given by Hridayananda Goswami, who was pleasantly surprised to see me and – in characteristic HdG style – took the time to crack a few jokes right from the vyasasana). After class, I joined the Swami and a large group of devotees for breakfast at the home of a local disciple of Srila Prabhupada. Over breakfast, I got to catch up with Brahma Tirtha Prabhu (better known as Bob Cohen, who as a young peace corps worker engaged Srila Prabhupada in such an interesting dialogue that Prabhupada had it turned into a book – Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers). We discussed everything from mediation to his son’s law practice (his son, incidentally, graduated from GW Law School a year before I started there).

After breakfast, I returned to the quarters to get some work done.

Walking around, breathing in this place… If I had to sum up ISKCON Dallas in two words, they would be these: first class.

The ISKCON community in Dallas is a special place. The mood of excellence permeates everything here; its ingrained in all the details and nuances of this place.

We use the term "first class" a lot in ISKCON -- its one of those slightly antiquated Indian phrases we inherited from Srila Prabhupada -- but I was thinking about how accurate it is in this case.

One way to understand "first class" is to mean the best. This is certainly the mood of Dallas, a la Tamal Krishna Goswami. TKG had this amazing drive to offer nothing but the best to his guru, Srila Prabhupada. He wouldn't settle for anything less; to not offer the topmost spiritual master the topmost of everything to use in Krishna's service was just not an option for him. This is how he was trained, and -- from the stories I've heard recently from some of his senior disciples -- how he trained others. He wanted to give them what Prabhupada gave him, but to do that he needed them to take on that mood of nothing but the best.

It is apparent in Dallas... it almost seems like the managers and leaders wear WWTKGD bracelets and base any decision -- from the menu at their award-winning restuarant Kalachandji's to which kind of paper towel to stock the restrooms with -- on what is the best offering to Prabhupada.

Another meaning for "first class" is rooted in the culture of varnashrama: brahminical. The brahmanas were considered "first class men" (and their feminine counterpoints were "first class women") in this ancient culture, not just because of the family they were born into, but because of qualities such as cleanliness, honesty, humility, a commitment to deity worship, and a desire to give others the highest wealth of spiritual knowledge. Taken in that way, it is clear that Dallas is following TKG's example to the tee. This is probably the cleanest ISKCON temple I've seen in America. The hallway sparkles, the restaurant is classy and neat, the temple room is very stylish and opulent without appearing cluttered or garish. Sri Sri Radha-Kalachandji's worship is conducted to exacting high standards, but still emits an aura of simplicity and intimacy.

Finally, "first class" can be used to denote above and beyond the norm, the way we regard the first class section of an airplane. And like the first class section of an airplane, its all the little extras that make the difference. Sure, the folks sitting in coach will get to the destination just the same; but the first class passengers are treated to luxuries and benefits that exceed expectations or requirements. Goswami Maharaj was a visionary, and couldn't tolerate just settling for something, even if it was the way that everyone else was doing it. He was an aristocrat without being an ego-driven snob -- by meditating on creative ways to go the extra mile to represent Krishna in this world. The Dallas temple imbibes this attitude wonderfully. The devotees are always pushing themselves to give more, to come up with new and exciting ways to share Krishna with others. They are detail oriented in a way that is rarely seen in ISKCON, being conscious of the most minute considerations to ensure that guests and visitors have the best experience they can.

A few days before, on the fourth of July, I had attended a very special Vyasa Puja celebration honoring Goswami Maharaj. And now I found myself sitting in his darshan room, reflecting on these qualities, and grateful to be here.

My meditation was soon broken however, when BB Govinda Maharaj came into the room and reminded me that it was almost show-time.

... to be continued...


Don't Mess With Texas Day 1: Go West

Right now it is almost 1:30 am in Houston, Texas -- For the past four days, I've been here in Texas, trying to assist B.B. Govinda Swami's awareness and fundraising campaign for the crisis in Kazakhstan. Despite the fact that it has meant being away from home, and that I have had to tolerate the meanest, hungriest mosquitoes I've tangled with in a long time, I've really loved my time here. No big adventures or hilarious stories -- but it has been a fun, lively, busy, and interesting trip. Thought I'd share some highlights, day by day...

(this is all back posting, so bear with me.)

Don't Mess With Texas Day 1:
"Go West" (7/5/07)

I had hardly finished zipping up my suitcase when we jumped in the car; Krsangi dropped me off at Laguardia airport, making perfect time. After checking in, I readied myself for those precious few minutes (usually a solid half-hour) where you sit at the gate, before your flight begins boarding. For some reason, I relish that time. It's like you can use that time to do silly, little luxuries -- like thumb through a Time magazine or fiddle around with your cell phone or munch on an overpriced candy bar and people watch -- without feeling too guilty about it. Usually, any "free time" would have to go to finishing rounds, or dealing with the latest crisis, or dutifully plowing through emails. But somehow, that pre-boarding time at the airport is like a free-pass for spacing out. It's like a little time-out for me, and its one of the weird little things I actually enjoy about flying as much as I do.

No such luck today. Instead, I used all that time touching base with Anuttama Prabhu about the Vrindavan widows story on CNN and how to respond. Anyway, the conversation was good. And while I was sitting in the airport lounge, glued to my cell phone, I noticed all the other people sitting there on a Thursday afternoon, glued to their cell phones. They were talking about things significant to their occupations - about financial statements, and prototypes, and testing the system specs, and earnings reports. In the midst of it all, there I was, discussing the risks and responsibilities facing ISKCON in light of a CNN news story. Suddenly, I had one those "a-ha" moments and realized that I have, possibly, the coolest job in the world.

The flight to Texas was good -- decent seats, minimal delays, and I alternated between chanting rounds, taking naps, and -- thanks to Krsangi's description-defying sandwiches of love and devotion -- eating. These sandwiches were ideal for taking on the flight, loaded with fresh pesto (perfectly flavorful), avocado, lettuce, and Primal Strips (a devotee produced vegan soy "jerky" that we found is a great filler for a chewy tasty sandwich).

I arrived in Dallas late that night, and was picked up by my godbrother Rasaraja Prabhu. As soon as we drove up to the large temple on Gurley, my heart fluttered a bit and I felt the warm familiar feeling of returning home. Not that I have ever lived in Dallas, or even spent that much time there. But still, there's just something about the temple that makes me feel very welcomed. I think it must be the astounding hospitality, attention to detail, and care that TP Nityananda Prabhu and the other devotees there have showered on me in the past when I've visited. They have this uncanny ability to make someone feel like they are the most important person on the planet. Its obvious that these devotees have a deep understanding of what it means to serve Vaisnavas -- or even the pretend variety like me. Whatever the case, they've managed to completely win over my heart.

"Prabhu, where exactly am I staying?" I asked.

"Oh, you will be staying in Gurudeva's quarters."

Gurudeva's quarters?! Hare Krishna! I carried my bags, took a deep breath, and climbed the stairs. Next stop: TKG's territory.