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 …


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.