needs your help. This project is maintained by donations, which have been reduced during the pandemic. Kindly consider supporting this very important service project. Click here to contribute.



Optimism and pessimism appear to be opposite terms, but both states of mind can be used in Krishna consciousness. Although everyone is familiar with the meaning of these two terms, I would like to present their dictionary definitions:

Optimism: 1. A tendency to look on the more favorable side, or to expect the most favorable outcome of events or conditions. 2. The belief that good will ultimately triumph over evil and that virtue will be rewarded. 3. The doctrine that the existing world is the best of all possible worlds.

Pessimism: 1. The tendency to see only what is disadvantageous or gloomy, or to anticipate the worst outcome. 2. The doctrine that the existing world is the worst of all possible worlds, or that all things naturally tend toward evil. 3. The belief that the evil and pain in the world outweigh any goodness or happiness.

These meanings draw lines, and people tend to place themselves along them—as optimists or pessimists—or somewhere in between.

The phrase “the best of all possible worlds” was posited by the German philosopher Leibniz in the seventeenth century. Leibniz spoke about cause and effect and concluded that we live in the best of all possible worlds. His philosophy was most notably attacked by the writer and thinker Voltaire in his book Candide. I would like to use parts of Voltaire’s story to delineate the extremes of optimism.

Candide’s Tale Of Woe

Candide is named for the book’s main character, a young man in a royal family who is not quite a legitimate heir. He is described as having “sound judgment combined with a great simplicity of mind,” but he falls in love with the baron’s daughter. When they act on that infatuation, Candide is forced to leave the castle, and so the story goes forward.

While he is yet at the castle, Candide and the baron’s daughter have a tutor, “the oracle of the household,” named Dr. Pangloss. Dr. Pangloss is a philosopher who teaches “metaphysico-theologo- cosmonigology,” and it is through this character that Voltaire mocks Leibniz. Candide “listened to [Dr. Pangloss’s] instructions with all the simplicity natural to his age and disposition. [Dr. Pangloss] proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and in this best of all possible worlds, the baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all possible castles and Her Ladyship the best of all possible baronesses.”

Leibniz used his optimistic philosophy to hint at the presence of a Deity. Voltaire attacks that idea as he goes on in this story to show the real misery of human life.

After Candide leaves the castle, he wanders through the snow until he comes to a town. Some uniformed soldiers feed him, assuring him that it is the duty of one man to help another (something Dr. Pangloss had also taught him), and then ask him if he would drink to the king of the Bulgars. Candide agrees. They then tell him he will become the “support and upholder” of the Bulgars. The soldiers put him in leg irons and take him to their army camp. There he is forced to learn the drill, and is beaten with a cane for his mistakes. When he finally performs the drill without mistakes, they tell him he has become a hero. “Candide, utterly bewildered, could not make out very clearly how he was a hero.”

Pangloss The Beggar

After a few more adventures, Candide meets a “beggar covered with sores; his eyes were lifeless, the tip of his nose had been eaten away, his mouth was twisted, his teeth were black, his voice was hoarse, he was racked by a violent cough, and he spat out a tooth with every spasm.” Moved to compassion, Candide gives the beg-gar the money he himself had just received by begging. The beggar then throws his arms around Candide and tells him that he is Dr. Pangloss. The Baron’s castle has been destroyed, Dr. Pangloss tells Candide, and the royal family killed. Dr. Pangloss survived but suffers from a venereal disease.

Candide’s adventures get worse, but the story’s ending is significant. Candide and Dr. Pangloss meet a man and his small family who live off the land, working and not depending upon others. Nor do they try to understand the larger events taking place in the world. Pangloss and Candide decide they want to live like this man. This is Voltaire’s understanding of something positive a person can do in a horrible world to escape the punishments of vice, boredom, and poverty. Voltaire describes manmade and natural disasters, such as an earthquake in Lisbon that killed thirty thousand people, and asks how one can continue to consider this the best of all possible worlds.

As Candide, Pangloss, and the other characters settled down to live a positive life, Pangloss now and then said to Candide, “All events are interconnected in this best of all possible worlds, for if you hadn’t been driven from a beautiful castle with hard kicks because of your love … if you hadn’t been seized by the Inquisition, if you hadn’t wandered over America on foot, if you hadn’t thrust your sword through the baron, and if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from the land of Eldorado, you wouldn’t be here eating candied citrons and pistachio nuts.

“ ‘Well said,’ replied Candide, ‘but we must cultivate our garden.’ ”


This “cultivate your own garden” philosophy can be applied in Krishna consciousness. Whether we’re a “big” reformer or a “small” one, we must all cultivate self-reform.

I took the trouble to present so much material because it affirms what we can do in our own Krishna conscious lives. Like Candide, we have little power against the trials sent by material nature, but we can do small, yet significant, things for our own improvement. Often devotees in the Krishna consciousness movement, in an optimistic fervor, imagine themselves single-handedly making major changes in the world. But we are not likely to be able to make large changes on our own. Rather, our Krishna conscious optimism can be directed more personally: we can create a reform of ourselves and our families (if we have them), and take time to cultivate our spiritual garden. What we plant we will eat. There is little use in philosophizing abstractly like Dr. Pangloss about cause and effect, but, rather, we can live practically and faithfully in the world.

Schopenhauer’s View

After Voltaire, another philosopher disagreed with Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” approach. That was Schopenhauer, also a German. He was the first Western philosopher to study the Upanishads. Schopenhauer especially liked the concept of maya, and the philosophy he posited, after studying the Upanishads, was that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. He used his Vedic studies to support that idea.

And the Vedas do support that idea. The Vedic literature states that material life is full of suffering. It lists the threefold miseries (arising from our minds, from other living entities, and from natural calamities) and the fourfold miseries (birth, death, disease, and old age). No one escapes them. Does this mean that devotees should maintain a negative world view?

Upon hearing the Vedic literature’s sweeping condemnation of life in the material world, Albert Schweitzertermed the Vedic philosophy “world and life negating.” Western philosophers often end up with that misunderstanding, concluding that the highest goal is to merge into Brahman and that everything else is illusion and suffering. We are meant only to escape through self-negation in Brahman realization.

But that’s not the summation of our philosophy: there is something positive and optimistic.

To understand the difference between Dr. Pangloss’s and Schopenhauer’s versions of optimism and pessimism and the Krishna conscious versions, we must face the Vedas’ stated propose of human life. It is not our purpose to resign ourselves to a temporary and miserable world, either imagining it happy or understanding its misery, but to strive for permanent happiness. In the Vedic conception, a person negates life only when he identifies the illusory body with the self. Those who affirm the self accept the opportunity offered in the Vedic teachings to become victorious over death.

I will generalize and say that anyone who aspires to be a devotee in Krishna consciousness is optimistic about the spiritual facts of life and pessimistic toward the opportunities offered by material life. To the degree that that’s not true in us, our lack of advancement is revealed. If, in the name of being a devotee, we remain attracted to material life and unhappy renouncing it for spiritual life, we can say that we are not really devotees.

I remember once walking with Srila Prabhupada. At the end of the walk he turned and said, “If you have any idea that material life is happy, you cannot become Krishna conscious.” At other times he would say, “There is no happiness in the material world.”

Spiritual Optimism

We’re optimistic, but not about material life. I felt that balance between optimism and pessimism early in my own Krishna conscious life. When I was a member of ISKCON’s first temple, a storefront at 26 Second Avenue in New York City, I once arrived late to drive with Srila Prabhupada to a lecture he would give at Dr. Mishra’s Ananda Ashram outside the city. Another storefront attendee also arrived late. Suddenly, someone turned up with a jeep. We jumped in and drove out to the ashram. As we drove, we talked to one another simply as young men interested in the Swami (Srila Prabhupada). We all thought the Swami was great, but we especially liked his philosophy: the self doesn’t die; we are eternal. It gave us such hope.

Most people feel that same hope when they take to Krishna consciousness. That hope is the optimism of spiritual life. A devotee is jolly, Prabhupada would say. He said that if we weren’t feeling the happiness of spiritual life, we were in maya.

Mukunda’s Unparalleled Optimism

There is a wonderful expression of optimism in one of Lord Caitanya’s pastimes. Although playing the role of a devotee and generally hiding His true identity, Lord Caitanya once revealed that He is Krishna Himself. He then called each of His devotees forward one by one, told each devotee something about himself that only the devotee would know, revealed each devotee’s eternal form, andoffered each devotee a boon. As the day went on, however, it became clear to everyone that the Lord had not called Mukunda, a great kirtana singer loved by all the devotees.

Finally, the devotees approached Lord Caitanya and asked, “My Lord, are You going to call Mukunda?”

“Mukunda? Don’t even mention his name. He’s a good-for-nothing. He’s a chameleon. Whoever he’s with, he’s like them. If he associates with Mayavadis, he becomes a Mayavadi. If he comes here, he behaves like a devotee. Therefore, sometimes he offers Me a rose and sometimes he hits Me with a mallet.”

The devotees were shocked. They knew Mukunda was a true Vaishnava. They decided to intercede on his behalf.

But the Lord replied, “No! I will not see Mukunda for millions of lifetimes.”

Upon hearing these words, Mukunda began to clap his hands and dance. “I will! I will! I will see the Lord again!” Mukunda is an example of a true spiritual optimist; he was not defeated by the Lord’s rejection but instead chose to hang on one part of His sentence: “I will.” The Lord had said, “I will not see Mukunda for millions of lifetimes,” but Mukunda heard only “I will.” At that, Lord Caitanya laughed and at once accepted him.

Optimism means we see the silver lining in the circumstances of our lives and understand that the silver lining is Krishna’s mercy to bring us closer to Him. Mukunda could have thought, “Who knows if I will ever be accepted again? After all, where will I be in millions of lifetimes?” Rather, he was optimistic.

No Material Happiness

Yet the Bhagavatam hammers away at our material optimism in verse after verse. We cannot be happy in this world, and if we think we can, we are illusioned. Jada Bharata explains this point concisely to Maharaja Rahugana in the Fifth Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, in the chapter entitled “The Forest of Enjoyment”:

“Sometimes conditioned souls exchange money, but in due course of time, enmity arises because of cheating. Although there may be a tiny profit, the conditioned souls cease to be friends and become enemies.” In the purport Srila Prabhupada writes, “Unless one is firmly fixed in the regulative principles, one may perform mischievous acts, even if one is a member of the Krishna consciousness movement.”

Jada Bharata continues: “Sometimes, having no money, the conditioned soul does not get sufficient accommodations. Sometimes he does not even have a place to sit, nor does he have other necessities. In other words, he falls into scarcity, and at that time, when he is unable to secure the necessities by fair means, he decides to seize the property of others unfairly. When he cannot get the things he wants, he receives insults from others and becomes very morose.

“Although people may be enemies, in order to fulfill their desires again and again, they sometimes get married. Unfortunately, these marriages do not last very long, and the people involved are separated by divorce or other means.”

In the purport Srila Prabhupada writes, “Due to the cheating propensity, people remain envious. Even in Krishna consciousness, separation and enmity take place due to the prominence of material propensities. The conclusion is that no one can be happy in material life. One must take to Krishna consciousness.”

This basic understanding of optimism and pessimism must be there in any devotee wishing to advance in Krishna consciousness. We may, however, express individual attitudes according to our psychophysical natures. Some of us may appear more optimistic or pessimistic than others. But the basis for real optimism is in the life of the spirit. There is no happiness in material life.

Renunciation and Devotion

As long as we are attached to material enjoyment we will not be able to concentrate on devotional service. Srila Prabhupada in his purports to Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam encourages us to practice both renunciation and devotion and to see them as interdependent. Renunciation and devotional service run along parallel lines, and understanding one facilitates understanding the other. As the scriptures assure us again and again, progress in Krishna consciousness is characterized by progressive renunciation of material enjoyment.

We can see the close interrelationship of devotional service and renunciation perfectly displayed in the life of Caitanya Mahaprabhu. It was Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, a great disciple of Lord Caitanya, who said that Caitanya Mahaprabhu descended to teach detachment from whatever does not foster devotional service to Krishna.

What exactly is renunciation? In the Bhagavad-gita (6.1-2) Krishna gives His definition: “One who is unattached to the fruits of his work and who works as he is obligated is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic, not he who lights no fire and performs no duty. What is called renunciation you should know to be the same as yoga, or linking oneself with the Supreme, O son of Pandu, for one can never become a yogi unless he renounces the desire for sense gratification.” According to this definition, a renunciant is not simply someone who gives up external duties. A renunciant is one who gives up all personal, selfish interests, while at the same time working for Krishna’s interest.

Although these verses from the Bhagavad-gita appear to address renunciation by the yogi, they also apply to the bhakta (devotee). The yogi and the bhakta both practice renunciation, but in different ways.Both renounce sense gratification, and both restrain the senses. The yogi, however, does this by sitting down in a solitary place, controlling his breath, and refraining from all activity. The devotee, Srila Prabhupada explains, has a different method: “A person in Krishna consciousness has no opportunity to engage his senses in anything which is not for the purpose of Krishna.” In other words, a devotee is always renounced because he always engages in devotional activity.

We often use the word “austerity” (tapasya) when speaking of renunciation. “Austerity” means voluntarily accepting trouble for spiritual advancement. In former ages, devotees sometimes performed severe austerities to please Krishna. Dhruva Maharaja, for example, was only a five-year-old boy when he left home to seek the Supreme Lord. When Dhruva met the great sage Narada Muni, Narada instructed him in mystic yoga and devotion. Then, under Narada’s direction, Dhruva went to the forest and practiced austerity.

During the first month, Dhruva ate only a little fruit every third day. During the second month, he ate fruit every six days. Then he ate grass and leaves, then fasted on water. Throughout this time, he also practiced breath control, becoming so accomplished he could hold his breath for days at a time. Eventually, he attained several yogic perfections, one of which was the power to increase his weight to equal the weight of the entire universe. Completely controlling his mind and senses, he concentrated on Lord Vishnu within his heart. In six months, Dhruva was able to see Lord Vishnu face to face.

Srila Prabhupada relates Dhruva’s extraordinary austerities to our own situation in ISKCON:

We should always remember that to become a bona fide devotee of the Lord is not an easy task, but in this age, by the mercy of Lord Caitanya, it has been made very easy. But if we do not follow even the liberal instructions of Lord Caitanya, how can we expect to discharge our regular duties in devotional service? It is not possible in this age to follow Dhruva Maharaja in his austerity, but the principles must be followed. We should not disregard the regulative principles given by our spiritual master, for they make it easier for the conditioned soul. As far as our ISKCON movement is concerned, we simply ask that one observe the four prohibitive rules, chant sixteen rounds, and instead of indulging in luxurious eating for the tongue, to simply accept prasada offered to the Lord.—Srimad- Bhagavatam 4.8.72, purport

If we are serious about going back to Godhead in this lifetime, then we must seriously apply the principles of renunciation and devotion. We have a certain amount of “business” to accomplish in the human form of life, and heading the list is the business of becoming detached from material desires. If we don’t become detached in this life, we will have to return in another life to continue. Prabhupada writes, “We should be determined to finish our duties in executing devotional service in this life. We should not wait for another life to finish our job.”

Devotional renunciation is easy and pleasant. All we have to do is refrain from sinful activity and, rather than avoiding activity, engage ourselves in acts of devotion. Our lives will become so filled with Krishna consciousness that we will have little time to worry about becoming attracted to the material world. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The more the activities of the material world are performed in Krishna consciousness, or for Vishnu only, the more the atmosphere becomes spiritualized by complete absorption.… Matter dovetailed for the cause of the Absolute Truth regains its spiritual quality. Krishna consciousness is the process of converting the illusory consciousness into Brahman, or the Supreme.” (Bhagavad-gita 4.24, purport)

Rupa Gosvami taught yukta-vairagya,the principle of using even material things in Krishna’s service. He explains in Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu that yukta- vairagya is superior to its opposite, phalgu- vairagya, or artificial renunciation.

This Sanskrit word, phalgu, is also used to describe an underground river. What appears to be only a dry riverbed sometimes disguises that under the earth a river continues to flow. This is called phalgu. Rupa Gosvami compares renunciation that neglects to use everything in Krishna’s service to such a river. Although the artificial renunciant appears to be detached from material activities and worldly things, internally a strong desire for these things still flows. That is why this form of renunciation is considered incomplete.

Sometimes meditators, especially those of the Buddhist and Taoist schools, speak of reaching the stage of desirelessness. To become desireless is impossible, however, because desire is a natural function of the living entity. There are many renunciants in various disciplines and traditions, but the renunciation they practice is often based on a doctrine of the corrupt body and the pure spirit. Eventually, the practitioner tends to rebel against such concepts, retreating headlong into hedonism. This is referred to as bhoga-tyaga, the flip-flopping from enjoyment to renunciation and back again.

Yukta-vairagya solves this dilemma. By practicing yukta-vairagya, we accept the body as material but not as the ultimate source of corruption. We concentrate on the soul, but we also take care of the body. After all, the body is a useful vehicle for carrying us from one Krishna conscious activity to another. Yukta-vairagya, or renunciation in Krishna consciousness, entails satisfying the needs of the senses simply and offering everything to Krishna. In this lies real happiness.

To attain devotion we must practice renunciation, but we should not be frightened by this. Although renunciation may at first seem painful, it provides us with relief by freeing us from the much greater pain and entanglement that follows any attempt to enjoy matter. If we want to stay free of material life, we have to give ourselves something better to do. Everything becomes complete in Krishna consciousness. As Srila Prabhupada explains: “When one is in Krishna consciousness, he automatically loses his taste for pale things.”

Seeing the Good

I recently discussed with a friend the importance of trying to see good in all persons. But my friend doubted: “Isn’t it a fact that some people are actually bad?” It occurred to me that I should have first defined what I mean by good. Positive thinking must be more than vague sentiments.

According to Vedic knowledge, any thought or act progressive to spiritual life is good. And spiritual life may be defined simply—but accurately—as that which is pleasing to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, as enunciated in the recognized scriptures. For practical guidance in spiritual life we should also follow the example and advice of God’s representatives, those who have attained to a state of pure goodness.

It is difficult to find someone who is one hundred percent good, someone completely in accord with God’s wishes. In the Bhagavad-gita the Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna, admits, sa mahatma sudurlabhah. The mahatma, who is completely in the spiritual energy of God, is very rarely found in this world. But do we have to wait until we find one hundred percent goodness before we recognize and encourage good acts? A more realistic approach is to appreciate sincere attempts at spiritual life, even in a person who has flaws.

An incident in the life of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada exemplifies this positive but realistic outlook. In 1973 Prabhupada received a letter from a woman named Lynne Ludwig, who had encountered two of his young disciples in California. She complained that they had “a very negative outlook toward the people they meet.” Moved by her genuine concern, Srila Prabhupada wrote her a thoughtful letter. He acknowledged that his followers may have acted in an indiscreet way, and he asked her to please forgive them. At the same time Srila Prabhupada pointed out the saving grace in the behavior of his devotees:

To give up one’s life completely for serving the Supreme Lord is not an easy thing, and maya, or the illusory, material energy, tries especially hard to trap those who have left her service to become devotees. Therefore, in order to withstand the attack of maya and remain strong under all conditions of temptation, some who are inexperienced devotees in the neophyte stage of devotional service will sometimes adopt an attitude against those things or persons which may possibly be harmful or threatening to their tender devotional creepers. They may even overindulge in such feelings just to protect themselves, and thus they will appear to some nondevotees, who are perhaps themselves still very much enamored by the material energy of maya to be negative or pessimistic.

Prabhupada went on to state that when a devotee of God actually comes to the mature stage, then he becomes “constantly enlightened, always positive, not negative, as you say. The advanced devotee is the friend of everyone.”

So far I have discussed seeing the good in those who have accepted the spiritual path, even if they are immature. But what about persons who may not believe in God? What about persons who flagrantly disobey the basic commandments? And what about the animals and plants? Should we see God only in theistic human beings?

In fact, the vision by which one sees everyone as equally good is the vision of the topmost theist. As Lord Krishna declares in the Bhagavad-gita (5.18), “The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater [outcaste].”

The enlightened sage can see everyone equally because he doesn’t see in terms of bodily coverings. He sees the spirit soul within. He sees that even animals are eternal spirit souls, but because of their previous bad karma, they have been forced to enter a species of life with a very limited consciousness. But all souls are equal, and therefore no one has a right to kill. When applied in this way, the attempt to see the good in others becomes a very crucial and practical basis for personal ethics.

There is another important reason why we should see everyone as equal: Everyone is equally a servant of God, equally subject to His supreme will. Lord Krishna declares in the Bhagavad-gita (4.11), “”As all surrender to Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Pritha.” From the viewpoint of God, therefore, everyone is His eternal part and parcel, and everyone may become His eternal associate again in the spiritual world.

But what about seeing the bad? Certainly systems of morality, philosophy, and religion teach an important distinction between sinful and unsinful acts. There are laws of God, or laws of nature, and anyone who defies them receives punishment through the law of karma: The proof of this is that some spirit souls have taken birth in lower species, where they suffer more misfortune than others. But even when we acknowledge karma, that does not condone our taking a negative attitude toward “sinners.” A God conscious person, who has actually developed traits of goodness, hates not the sinner but the sin—the destructive act itself.

Those who have gained a conviction about the equality of all beings have the added responsibility to try to help others come to the higher understanding. We should all strive to see the good in others and to help them bringout their best. This is expressed in the Bhagavad-gita (3.26), “Let not the wise disrupt the minds of the ignorant who are attached to fruitive action. They should be encouraged not to refrain from work, but to work in the spirit of devotion.”

If we want to promote good in the world, we cannot blindly believe that all acts are equally good. But we can see that everyone is good at heartbecause he is constitutionally part of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. A learned person, therefore, seriously tries to follow the path of goodness and introduces it to others.

Furthermore, real goodness is not the transient happiness we enjoy by our senses. That which is good must be eternal, and therefore it is attained by reviving our relationship with God. We can promote goodness by glorifying God through philosophy, art, science, music, and innumerable other methods. Mundane attempts at “doing good” deteriorate into moralistic meddling and schemes for others’ welfare, which end in failure.

Transcendental, positive thinking is not a Pollyanna pose, nor does it mean seeing through rose-colored glasses. It is a broad vision that includes and encompasses the bad and elevates us to our original state of eternal happiness. Seeing the good, therefore, means to love all beings in God’s creation. Even if pure goodness cannot be immediately achieved, the smallest attempt at goodness creates auspiciousness in the world. If we are able to face our own weaknesses, as well as the widespread corruption and evil in the world, and yet go on working for the cause of good, only then can we realize the happiness of the mahatma, the great-hearted servant of God and humanity.

Serious Laughter

Krishna consciousness is both serious business and great fun. Observers figure that anyone as earnest about spiritual life as Hare Krishna devotees seem to be (as evidenced by all the rules we follow) must not be enjoying life. Sometimes they ask, “What do you do for fun?”

I thought of that question this morning during the Srimad-Bhagavatam class in our temple. We’ve been blessed the past few weeks with a visit by His Holiness Maha-Vishnu Swami, an elderly Indian sannyasi from England who spices his learned lectures with humor and contagious belly laughs. He makes learning the serious lessons of the Bhagavatam enjoyable.

This morning, Maha-Vishnu Swami was saying that we must give up hypocrisy to advance in spiritual life. To illustrate, he told the story of a lawyer whose business was slow. When a man walked into his office one day, the lawyer, to impress his potential client, picked up the phone and pretended for some time to be talking to an important client. Finally, he hung up the phone and ask the man how he could help him.

“Oh, I’m from the phone company,” the man replied. “Your phone’s not working, and I came in to fix it.”

We all laughed. We got the point: Be a hypocrite and you’ll make a fool of yourself.

Part of the serious business of Krishna consciousness is laughing at the foolishness of material life. The material world is no doubt a fool’s paradise, filled with the folly of trying to ignore the unavoidable reality of miseries like old age, disease, and death.

As aspiring devotees of Krishna, we often laugh at ourselves too, at our childlike, fumbling attempts to make it to the mature world of pure devotion to Krishna. But we know that if we persevere in our spiritual practices despite the trials of life, we’ll eventually win Krishna’s favor by our love. That thought can make everything look bright.

Even when things aren’t looking so bright, humor can help us remember an important point, such as our reluctance to hear good instructions:

A man was driving with a car full of penguins. A surprised police officer stopped him and ordered him to take them to the zoo. The next day, the officer saw the man again—still with the penguins.

“I told you to take them to the zoo!” the officer demanded.

“I did, officer,” said the man, smiling. “And we had so much fun, today I’m taking them to the beach!”

Srila Prabhupada is giving me so many important instructions, I think. Am I really hearing him? Will I ever get rid of my penguins?

I once handed Back to Godhead to a young man in the street. He had seen the magazine before. He flipped it open to a photo of Srila Prabhupada and asked, “Does this man ever smile?”

He certainly does. Photos of Prabhupada often show his gravity, his no-nonsense attitude toward spiritual life. But he laughed too. Sally Agarwal, at whose home Prabhupada stayed when he first arrived in America, described his laughter as “oceanic.”

“He just seemed to take in the whole world when he laughed,” she said, “and he laughed a lot.”

Pure devotees see the whole world as a place for laughter in the joy of Krishna consciousness.

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

In the Second Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Shukadeva Goswami criticizes those who pursue material life and have no desire to inquire into self-realization, and although he spoke thousands of years ago, his words are still relevant today. Those who are not interested in self-realization hover in a world of illusory pleasure and suffering.

Material life tends to become increasingly complicated. The more we try to enjoy it, the more we suffer; and the more we try to alleviate our suffering, the more entangled we become. Shukadeva Goswami therefore prescribes that the enlightened person endeavor only for the minimum necessities of life and not for anything else. His words are spirited:

When there are ample earthly flats to lie on, what is the necessity of cots and beds? When one can use his own arms, what is the necessity of a pillow? When one can use the palms of his hands, what is the necessity of varieties of utensils? When there is ample covering or the skins of trees, what is the necessity of clothing? Are there no torn clothes lying on the common road? Do the trees, which exist for maintaining others, no longer give alms in charity? Do the rivers, being dried up, no longer supply water to the thirsty? Are the caves of the mountains now closed, or, above all, does the Almighty Lord not protect the fully surrendered souls? Why then do the learned sages go to flatter those who are intoxicated by hard-earned wealth? (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.2.4- 5)

We could challenge Shukadeva Goswami’s statements in the modern context: “Do the trees not give alms?” No, they don’t. If we pick fruit from a tree, we’re likely to get shot at. “Do the rivers no longer supply water?” No, they are all polluted. And who can find an “earthly flat” that is safe to lie on these days?

His one irrefutable claim, however, is that the Almighty Lord still protects the surrendered souls. That is an eternal truth and cannot be touched by the onward march of time or progress. Under Krishna’s protection, we do not have to sell our souls to those who are “intoxicated by hard- earned wealth.” Even if we choose to work under someone else, we do not have to relinquish our Krishna conscious objectives, and we can still live with respect and dignity in spiritual life.

Srila Prabhupada writes, “The idea given by Srila Shukadeva Goswami is that the reserve energy of human life … should simply be utilized for self-realization. Advancement of human civilization must be towards the goal of establishing our lost relationship with God. …”

The standard of living in the West is so inflated, and the crunch of economic necessity so pressing, that even devotees can become preoccupied with fulfilling their economic needs. When that happens, they feel they don’t have time for the simple activities of hearing and chanting about Krishna. This is a shame, because it means that those persons who most want to develop love of God are somehow hampered in their spiritual development.

But we don’t have to be hampered. Our interest in spiritual development gives us the right to make another choice. We can choose to escape the straitjacket of material pressure and make spiritual life our priority. We can make a stand: Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!

Srila Prabhupada points out that simplifying our lives doesn’t require that we “revert to running naked through the jungles without culture, education, or morality.” It implies, however, that we should not live lives dedicated to the pursuit of materialism.

In the 1840s, Henry David Thoreau expressed similar sentiments. “Still we live meanly, like ants. … Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. … I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.”

We may not be able to rid ourselves of everything that keeps us from the all-important practice of spiritual life, but we can reduce the things that distract us from our spiritual goal. Do we need so many things? Can we stop at ten, or in extreme cases, at twenty distractions instead of thousands or millions? Simplifying our lives is an art that every spiritual aspirant must learn. We all have to work. Then we should spiritualize our work by consciously offering it to Krishna and by being simple in our acceptance of and desire for the fruits.

Few people can live off the land in the sense that Shukadeva Goswami means it, but we can follow Sukadeva’s spirit of radical simplicity, and as Prabhupada assures us in his purports to these verses, we can count on Krishna’s help.

The Root of Anger

A therapist draws on Lord Krishna’s teachings to help a child control his rage.
The hospital room smells strongly of antiseptic as I walk in. Chris sits on his bed, immersed in rapidly pushing buttons with his thumbs.

“Nintendo?” I ask nonchalantly, breaking his concentration.

“Play Station,” he replies, continuing to madly push buttons.

I sit in a chair next to his bed, observing his strategy for blowing things up.

After a couple of minutes, Chris slams the game paddle to the floor.

“I hate this game,” he snarls, with a few expletives thrown in.

Instinctively I reply, “Hmm, sounds like you’re really angry.”

My statement of the obvious sounds ludicrous to both of us. Chris ignores me. He covers his head with the bed sheet and mumbles to himself.

I feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to say to draw him out. Chris is an eleven-year-old boy I’ve been working with in mental-health therapy for the past year. He has a history of explosive, raging outbursts. Recently he kicked a brick wall so hard he broke the femur in his right leg. Now he’s confined to a hospital bed with pins in his leg.

I make another feeble attempt to connect to him.

“Anger is a powerful feeling. Looks like we need to explore new ways for you to control it, rather than it control you.”

After enduring a few more minutes of silence, I decide to try a different approach.

“ I brought you some cookies,” I say with as much enthusiasm as I can muster.

At this, he peers out from under the sheet and asks, “What kind?”

Relieved to hear some response, I reply “Peanut butter.”

He puts his hand out, and I place the cookies in it. Both he and the cookies disappear under the sheet. The muted sound of his munching fills the sterile room.

Losing Control

Since Chris and I began working on his anger, he has learned to identify things that trigger it. Getting teased at school makes him furious and inspired him to kick the brick wall. He has also learned to recognize that when he loses control, his fists and teeth clench and he feels flushed. He has developed a repertoire of positive ways to deal with his anger: walking away, positive self-talk, running around the block, visualizing a peaceful place. Despite this arsenal of anger-management skills, he still fails to control his anger in real-life situations.

Because I’m a long-time student of Bhagavad- gita, Chris’s problem reminds me of the verse in which Lord Krishna tells His friend and disciple Arjuna that anger comes from lust. People generally think of lust as sexual longing. But Lord Krishna’s definition of lust extends to any ungodly desire to gratify the senses.

Lord Krishna further explains that although the senses require a certain amount of satisfaction, unless regulated they become like wild horses, forcing one to obey their whims. Craving the objects of their satisfaction, the senses take control of the mind and intelligence, leading to frustration and anger when their impossible demands go unmet. From this anger, Krishna continues, delusion arises, and from delusion, bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, human intelligence is lost, leaving one in a hell of irrational behavior.

Anger in Littleton

Modern society is full of people plagued with sensual addictions. When such people can’t satisfy their urges, they become frustrated and anger takes control. As a result, we are currently witnessing unprecedented acts of violence throughout society. Even our middle-class suburban schools have been victimized by a rash of killings perpetrated by children from their own communities.

On April 20,1999, two students of Columbine High School in affluent Littleton, Colorado, opened fire on their fellow students, killing eleven and injuring many more. For the climax of their orchestrated massacre, the boys shot and killed themselves.

Like my client Chris, the Littleton boys had experienced peer rejection. One of them had graduated from an anger- management class. Still, rather than seek out ways to be accepted, they chose to retaliate with vengeance. They identified with hate groups and then planned a diabolical scheme to persecute those they imagined had smitten them.

This is a modern illustration of the Gita’s timeless words: a thwarted desire for adoration and distinction emotionally evolves from lust to anger, then to delusion, and finally to insanity.

Graduates of the study of the Bhagavad-gita go on to the Srimad-Bhagavatam. The Bhagavatam narrates several accounts of how anger bewildered the intelligence of even great personalities. Once Durvasa Muni, a powerful yogi, approached the palace of Ambarisha Maharaja, a saintly king and exalted devotee of the Lord. Ambarisha prepared a reception with sumptuous food for Durvasa. As was the custom, before accepting his meal Durvasa went to bathe in the river. While bathing, the mystic Durvasa entered a yogic trance and stayed in the water for some time.

King Ambarisha had been observing a religious fast, and the proper time to break his fast was approaching. Not wanting to offend Durvasa by accepting his own meal before feeding his guest, Ambarisha Maharaja drank a little water—an action that simultaneously breaks and does not break one’s fast.

By his yogic abilities, Durvasa came to know of this perceived transgression. Thinking the king’s action disrespectful, Durvasa became insulted, and to retaliate he went before Ambarisha with angry words. He then invoked a fiery demon meant to destroy the king. But Lord Krishna protected His devotee Ambarisha and released His razor-sharp disc weapon towards Durvasa. After fleeing for his life, Durvasa came to his senses and realized how his pride and lust for adoration and distinction had provoked his needless wrath. Understanding the ramifications of his anger, Durvasa Muni fell at the feet of Maharaja Ambarisha and received forgiveness.

Anger as a Symptom

There are rare instances where anger is spiritually appropriate, provoked by injustices against the Lord and His devotees. Most anger, however, is a negative emotion manifested from frustrated attempts to enjoy sensually in the material world. Such anger must be checked and controlled. Teaching people anger-management skills can help. Chris sometimes successfully avoided confrontation by remembering to use them.

But as fever is a symptom of some disease in the body, anger is a symptom of ongoing material hankerings. Just as treating fever alone will not cure the disease, treating anger without understanding it to be a symptom of lust will not extinguish the unwanted behavior. To conquer anger, we must first ask how we shall conquer lust.

The Srimad-Bhagavatam describes many persons who conquered lust and were unaffected by anger. Foremost among them is Prahlada Maharaja. At the age of five, Prahlada, a selfrealized devotee, had no interest in worldly gain—just the opposite of his lusty, atheistic father, Hiranyakashipu. In time, the godless Hiranyakashipu began to look upon his saintly son as an enemy and plotted to kill him.

Although harassed in various ways by his father, Prahlada never became angry with him. The Lord, however, appeared as Nrisimhadeva and killed Hiranyakashipu. Afterwards, He offered a benediction to Prahlada, who, being self-satisfied in love of God, asked only that his evil father be liberated from his sins.

To be free of any negative emotions towards a person who tries to kill you may seem impossible. Yet a pure soul sees things differently. Pure devotees of God know they are spiritual beings, separate from the material body, and they see others in the same way. They understand how karma forces everyone to act according to a particular conditioned nature. They have full faith that the Lord is orchestrating everything and that He will protect them. Self-realized souls such as Prahlada are satisfied, so they don’t need to exploit anything or anyone.

While this portrait of a pure soul may seem foreign, it is nevertheless our actual nature. Layers of dirt may cover gold, but when thoroughly cleansed the gold resumes its brilliance. Similarly, those who become cleansed of material desire again exhibit their original purity. Such purification is possible by engaging the demanding senses in serving the Lord. Without using the senses in God’s service, trying to control them will end in frustration and failure.

Helping Chris

I realize that Chris’s success hinges on his turning to God, Krishna. Chris can now go in a direction that will elevate or degrade his consciousness. He can allow his anger to consume him and follow the teenage murderers of Columbine. Or he can follow in the footsteps of Prahlada and Ambarisha.

Right now I can’t imagine Chris sitting down to chant the Hare Krishna mantra on beads. But I can introduce prayer to get him started.

When Chris finally emerges from under the sheets, I suggest a new tactic: praying to God for help with his anger. Together we formulate the prayer: “My dear Lord, please help me to stay in control of my anger. Help me to be calm and peaceful even when I’m being teased.”

Chris repeats the prayer several times out loud and gives me an approving nod.

“Maybe this will help.” he says with a new confidence.

“I’m sure it will,” I respond, getting up to leave.

He waves enthusiastically.

“Come again,” he says, “and bring more cookies!”

I make a mental note to bring cookies offered to Krishna so Chris can be purified. I’d hate for him to be angry with me.

Vaishnava Compassion

"A natural human sentiment, compassion finds its highest expression in the works of devotees of the Lord.
The tenderness of the heart experienced toward Krishna is known as bhakti. All other jivas are servants of Krishna. When one experiences tenderness of heart toward them, it is known as daya, compassion. Therefore, compassion is included within bhakti."

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Jaiva Dharma, p. 179

I was aware of the concept of compassion before I met Srila Prabhupada. While studying at Brooklyn College, I took a philosophy course in which we studied the writings of Bertrand Russell. In particular, I remember how he presented Nietzsche in comparison to Buddha. He gave a synopsis of Buddha's philosophy, compared it to Nietzsche's approach to humankind, and said in effect, "Which do you think is better?" Russell was obviously taken with Buddha's compassion for living beings, and considered a Buddha superior to a philosopher who worked with humanity as an idea. That was my introduction to how compassion was meant to be a heartfelt sentiment.

Just before I entered the Navy, I went to Confession at a Staten Island church. I told the priest I had begun to doubt the sacrament of Confession. When he invited me to meet him at the rectory, I poured out my concerns - the injustice whites were perpetrating against blacks, the senseless Korean War, and the complete materialism of standard American values.

The priest said simply, "I see you have a lot of love in you."

I was flattered, but I knew what I was really saying: How could a loving God allow so many injustices in the world? I was losing faith. The world seemed cold-hearted, competition- based, and loveless. Most of my friends agreed with this analysis. Thinking back, I see now that the priest was acknowledging my sentiment but recognizing that I had no idea how to express my love properly.

Being in the Navy did not help develop such sentiments. Upon discharge, I accepted a job in the Welfare Department. This is usually considered a compassionate field. I didn't take the position because I felt any particular sentiment for the poor, however; rather, I took it because it was an easy job for a college graduate to get.

There were people working in the Welfare Department who actually cared about their clients, but I saw right away that such concern was difficult to maintain. So many of these clients were simply trying to beat the system; few of them were interested in improving their lives. Many used the money to buy alcohol or drugs or engage in activities that degraded them. I felt my heart grow hard while working with those people. I think what really affected me was that there was no way out for them. The welfare system provided only a subsistence lifestyle, and many of these people were genuinely needy. It was going to take more than a new refrigerator or a few dollars to lift them out of both their poverty and the mentality that prevented them from being able to do more with their lives.

I could see that the Welfare Department was bailing a boat with a leaky bucket. My experience is probably common in the professionally compassionate fields. Later, I would hear Prabhupada quote Vidyapati in another context: When you are dying of thirst in a desert, what good is one drop of water? I realized early that I could make no real impact on my clients' lives, and that material welfare work could not lift these people above their suffering.

Diminishing Compassion

Later, in 1966, I broke my heels in a fall and was confined to bed for six weeks. I used the time to read books on Eastern philosophy and religion, including the Upanishads and other Vedic books, and books on Buddhism. I still remember one book in particular - The Compassionate Buddha - because I liked the idea of being compassionate. Although selfishness is a natural characteristic of conditioned souls in Kali-yuga, few of us are born without a natural sense of compassion. Still, Srila Prabhupada states that that natural compassion is becoming more and more covered in this age:

But in this age - it is called Kali-yuga - we are reducing our bodily strength, our memory, power of memorizing, our feelings of sympathy for others, compassion, age, duration of life, religious propensities. ...Formerly if somebody is attacked by another man, many persons will come to help him: "Why is this man attacked?" But at the present moment if one man is attacked, the passersby will not care for it because they have lost their sympathy or mercifulness for others. Our neighbor may starve, but we don't care for it. This is Kali-yuga." New Vrindaban, September 2, 1972

Even those who manage to retain their compassionate sentiments into adulthood are deluged by the media with images of suffering. Gradually, we become jaded, our sentiments dulled. It is normal to hear that fifty thousand were killed here, twenty thousand there, two million in such-and-such earthquake, ten thousand homeless from such-and-such flood - again and again and again - and all of it is horrible. We are helpless in the light of so much suffering. Over time, we back away from the world's pain to experience or sidestep the suffering we can find in our own backyards. It just seems too much to try for more.

When I met Srila Prabhupada, I came to understand real compassion. I also came to understand how truly rare a compassionate person is. Compassion is not a material quality but an extension of our spiritual consciousness. The dictionary defines it as "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another's suffering or misfortune, accompanied by a desire to alleviate the pain or remove its cause." Synonyms: commiseration, tenderness, heart, clemency. Antonyms: mercilessness, indifference.

Sympathy: "Harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another; a quality of mutual relations between people or things whereby whatever affects one also affects the other; the ability to share the feelings of another, esp. in sorrow or trouble; compassion or commiseration; sympathies: feelings or impulses of compassion."

Here is a list of Sanskrit terms that further divide the sentiments of compassion:

Anukampana: sympathy, compassion

Anugraha: favor, kindness, conferring benefits upon, promoting the good objective of, gracious toward

Karuna: compassion; the pathetic sentiment in poetry

Kripa: compassion accompanied by tenderness, pity (kripalu); specifically refers to compassion expressed toward those whom one knows

Daya: widespread or generalized feelings of mercy or sympathy. (In the Bhagavatam, Daya is the daughter of Daksha (Expertise) and the mother of Abhaya (Fearlessness).)

The Compassion Of Great Souls

Compassion means we think beyond our own troubles and feel sympathy and heartfelt sorrow for the troubles of others. There are those who are compassionate toward those they know - their friends, relatives, countrymen, or fellow religionists; and there are those great souls who are compassionate toward all spirit souls. Prabhupada was such a great soul. Prabhupada's heart bled to see our suffering, and he dedicated his life to helping us overcome it. What makes him rarer still is that not only was he willing to dedicate his life to alleviating our pain; he actually knew the panacea.

And he asked us to repay him by helping those whom we met.

But what if we don't share the depth of his compassion? What if we don't feel any compassion at all? We can still enlist in his mission. By working for someone compassionate, we can develop compassion. By serving others, and by serving Srila Prabhupada's compassionate heart, we can give up selfishness and become big-hearted.

Some devotees may hear this and wonder how this could be true. If Srila Prabhupada began a compassionate movement, and if we have been working for him all these years, why didn't we become compassionate? Or perhaps it can be argued that we did become compassionate, but only toward those who had not yet contacted Krishna consciousness. But why didn't our compassion spill over in our relationships with other devotees?

I won't pretend to have the single answer to that question, but I think it is healthy to ask it. There was a time in ISKCON when we presumed we were the most compassionate people in the world; after all, we were distributing the Hare Krishna mantra, the greatest benediction ever to be given to humankind. The scriptures define Krishna consciousness as the best welfare work for humanity. It is supposed to be better than the Peace Corps, better than the Cancer Research Society - better than any other idea anyone else has ever had about how to free people from suffering. Krishna consciousness is also universal, and there is nothing to bar anyone from taking part. It is sarvatra sarvada, suitable to be practiced in all times, all places, and under all circumstances. Srila Prabhupada writes:

Men do not know that the ultimate goal of life is Vishnu … due to being bewildered by the glaring reflection in the darkness, and as such everyone is entering into the darkest region of material existence, driven by the uncontrolled senses. The whole material existence has sprung up because of sense gratification … principally … sex desire, and the result is that in spite of all advancement of knowledge, the final goal of all the activities of the living entities is sense gratification… . Universal consciousness is factually achieved by coordinated service of all concerned to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and that alone can insure total perfection. Therefore even the great scientists, the great philosophers, the great mental speculators, the great politicians, the great industrialists, the great social reformers, etc., cannot give any relief to the restless society of the material world because they do not know the secret of success … namely, that one must know the mystery of bhakti- yoga… . The Srimad-Bhagavatam therefore says again and again that without attainment of the status of bhakti-yoga, all the activities of human society are to be considered absolute failures only.

—Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.36, Purport

That we have such a great, compassionate gift to offer others, however, does not mean that we are ourselves the most compassionate of workers. It also does not mean that those who are working in less glorious ways but who are giving more selflessly of themselves are not expressing compassion. In fact, they may be expressing more compassion toward others than we are. Many grassroots workers in this world sacrifice their lives for their chosen causes, even though those causes may offer only temporary relief to those whom they are trying to help. What could be motivating them except a sense of compassion? Still, we devotees tend to think we are better simply because we have access to the highest welfare.

Real compassion is not achieved automatically upon joining the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Compassion is not a line of work but an expansion of heart. Srila Prabhupada genuinely understood the suffering of material life and the pain of rebirth. He knew and taught his followers that only by awakening the people’s dormant Krishna consciousness could they be freed from the cycle of birth and death. It is not enough, he said, to alleviate people’s material hunger and thirst. It is not enough to alleviate their suffering for this lifetime only. He wanted his followers to save not only the drowning man’s coat but the drowning man himself.

You Can Do It!

Here it is, New Year’s Day, and like so many others, I’m sitting here thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Our resolutions usually involve giving up bad habits or picking up good ones. We may not stick to our resolutions, but that we make them at all tells us at least one thing: we have an innate belief that we can change, that we have at least some ability to improve ourselves.

One problem with trying to change is the reaction of our family and friends. They may discourage us by saying we’ll never do it. Or they might just make us uncomfortable when we try to present our new and improved self.

Sometimes people can’t understand our changes or don’t want us to change. When you visit your mother after you’ve grown up, she might be surprised that you don’t like the same food you liked as a child. “But you used to love carrots!”

Srila Prabhupada sometimes quoted the Bengali phrase nagna-matrika-nyaya: “the logic of the naked mother.” The point is that it’s illogical to think that a grown woman will have to run around naked just because she did so as a child. In other words, people can change.

Srila Prabhupada applied this expression to his disciples. Their families and friends were often shocked to see they’d given up meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling, so much a part of their youth. They thought the kids must be brainwashed, or that Krishna consciousness, like bell bottoms, would be just another passing fad.

People are sometimes surprised to find that Hare Krishna devotees are still around after all these years. I was chanting downtown with some devotees recently when a man passed by and offered this comment: “Get over it.”

But chanting Hare Krishna has the power to effect real, lasting change in anyone. Self-improvement requires at least some inner strength. We fail to honor our resolutions because we lack that strength. But chanting Hare Krishna draws out the innermost strength—the strength of the soul. It gets us in touch with our real identity.

Another reason we fail to honor our resolutions is that we aren’t sure they’re worthwhile. What will I ultimately gain if I quit smoking or gambling? I may solve some temporary problems, but if everything ends at death, what’s the ultimate significance of denying myself immediate pleasure?

By chanting Hare Krishna, we realize more and more that we’re not these temporary bodies but eternal spirit souls. The soul—the “I” within the body—in its pure state has no bad habits. And it has immense power. That power comes from love—love for Krishna, the Supreme Lord. If we tap that love, we can do anything. In the material world we can see how powerful even a person’s imperfect love can be. The soul’s pure spiritual love of God is inestimably more powerful. A pure devotee of the Lord can accomplish extraordinary things. Because his motive is the pleasure of his beloved Lord, he is fortified with boundless resolve.

So here’s one resolution that will help you follow all your other ones: resolve to regularly chant Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare / Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

The Power of Prayer

Atheists think that a prayer to God is sheer imagination. But for centuries, thousands of sincere practitioners have accumulated definite evidence of the positive results of prayer. The serious doubt regarding prayer is not whether God can hear and respond, but whether the things people pray for are worthwhile. According to St. Teresa of Avila. “More tears are shed in this world from prayers that are answered than from those that go unanswered.” Those who pray, therefore, need more than the conviction that the Supreme can fulfill our desires. Before we approach God with our requests, we ought to become educated as to what to pray for. The pure devotees of the Lord can teach us this ultimate truth.

One form of popular prayer emphasizes the pragmatic results. These “prayers” are actually nontheistic. As advised by psychologists, a person who believes strongly in his prayer can awaken from within his own subconsciousness huge stores of confidence and power and thus achieve his desired goal. Dale Carnegie, in his books on positive thinking, likes to narrate stories of people like the unsuccessful salesman who in desperation resorted to prayer and the next day was able to convince many customers to buy his vacuum cleaners. In such “prayers” the Personality of Godhead is hardly even acknowledged.

Another shortsighted type of prayer comes from those who believe in God but who are interested not so much in Him as in getting a bit of His opulence. Most prayers fall into this category, as the supplicants request health, riches, family happiness, and so on from a God whom they ask to function as a supreme order supplier. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna declares that persons who come to Him asking for material (and therefore temporary) benefits are sukritina, or pious. They are certainly better than those who never approach the Supreme, for although prayers for material benefits are ultimately foolish requests, the sukritinas get into the habit of approaching the Supreme, and thus they may purify themselves for higher communion with God.

An example of a successful sukritina is Dhruva Maharaja, whose prayers are described in the Vedic scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam. Dhruva prayed to God in a spirit of revenge against his parents, and he requested the most opulent kingdom that had ever been awarded to a mortal being. After performing severe austerities. Dhruva gained the audience of Lord Vishnu (a form of Lord Krishna. the Supreme Personality of Godhead). But when the Lord asked Dhruva what he wanted, Dhruva said, “Now that I have seen You, my Lord, I am fully satisfied, and I do not want anything else.”

This should be the goal of all prayer to attain loving service of the Supreme Lord, with no other desire. Lord Caitanya prayed, “I do not want to enjoy beautiful women, nor do I want wealth or many followers. All I want is Your causeless devotional service in my life, birth after birth.”

On hearing a prayer of full surrender and devotion to God, we may think, “That is a beautiful sentiment, but it’s only for the rare pure devotee, the saint” Yet we are all eternal, pure souls, part of the Supreme Lord. Because of the influence of illusion, we have lost our original connection with God and are wandering in the material world, suffering repeated miseries and continuing in illusion. The sincere call to God to be reconciled with His will is not just the practice of a saint; it is indeed the need of all fallen living entities.

When we think that we are independent and don’t really need God, and don’t need to pray, then we are in the most dangerous illusion. Sometimes our illusion is smashed by bitter suffering, or the truth may be revealed to us by association with pure devotees. When this happens we may realize that we are actually tiny, helpless creatures striving to survive but doomed to bodily annihilation. When a conditioned soul realizes his dangerous and fallen position, he deeply wishes to reform. Since all of us, to different degrees, are in the category of “fallen,” we all need to pray to Lord Krishna. But we cannot become reconciled with the Lord unless we receive His special mercy. We may pray, therefore, “My dear Lord, although I am unworthy to receive your special mercy to be relieved of false ego, I beg You to please give me the qualities of love and surrender. Please give Your gift of mercy and relieve me of my impurities. Please reconcile my heart to Yours. If You do not give me Your mercy. I shall be lost.”

True prayer is not mechanical recitation but the sincere cry of the contrite heart. When through prayer one receives even the first inclination of his revived association with Krishna, one wants to call on Him constantly and remain in the soothing shelter of His protection. It is for this reason that Krishna conscious spiritual masters recommend that we chant the holy names of God, especially the Hare Krishna mantra, as often as possible. (Kirtaniya sada harih: “One should always chant the name of Lord Krishna.”) The Hare Krishna mantra is itself a prayer invoking good fortune and petitioning the Lord, “O energy of God, O Supreme Lord, please engage me in Your service.”

Prayers of spontaneous pure devotion may take different forms, such as prayers of petition, praise, adoration, and thanksgiving. Krishna is known as Uttamashloka. which means “one who is praised with beautiful prayers.” The Vedic scriptures contain many excellent prayers, which can be recited by devotees seeking union with the Supreme. At the end of one excellent prayer to Lord Krishna, which is offered in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.24.76) by Lord Siva, it is stated, “Although rendering devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead and worshiping Him are very difficult, if one vibrates or simply reads this prayer, he will very easily be able to invoke the mercy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” In his commentary to this verse, Srila Prabhupada states. “Any devotee of Lord Krishna can attain all perfection simply by offering prayers to Him.”

One should recite the excellent prayers given in the scriptures, and one should also call upon God with one’s own feelings, thoughts, and words. The child-devotee of Lord Krishna named Prahlada Maharaja realized that the Lord is actually interested only in our devotion. Therefore even if we are unqualified to compose uttamashloka prayers, we can please the Lord if we are sincere. Srila Prabhupada states, “Despite whatever limitations you have, if you express feelingly, ‘My God! My Lord!’ that will be accepted.”

The real purpose of prayer is not to gain material resources or even spiritual salvation for oneself. The power of prayer comes w hen we call to Krishna out of a desire to do His will. Such pure prayers are not means to the end but are themselves loving exchanges between the Lord and His pure devotees. Whether we call on Him from the darkness of our fallen state in the material world, or whether we praise Him in the midst of His liberated associates in the kingdom of God, the pure prayer is the same: “Please engage me in Your service”—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna , Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

In Happiness and Distress

Misery and happiness come and go in this world, just like winter and summer. The Bhagavad-gita advises us to tolerate both happiness and distress. We are meant to tolerate while we keep performing our duties, and we are meant to keep worshiping Krishna despite everything. The Bhagavatam (10.14.8) states, tat te ’nukampam su- samikshamano… “My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and offering You respectful obeisances with his heart, words, and body, is surely eligible for liberation, for it has become his rightful claim.” This verse defines the mood of a devotee facing adversity.

Suffering is caused by our past acts. Therefore, a devotee should not expect immediate relief from his or her past karma. Prabhupada has assured us that Krishna minimizes our karmic reactions when we take up devotional service. But a devotee also looks at the suffering in the material world as a reminder of the harshness of illusion. Suffering is a teacher. Our hands are being rapped: “Pay attention! Work to get out of this material world! Remember Krishna!”

There can be no peace in the material world, where no one is free from karmic reactions. As long as we stay in material existence we must continuously suffer or enjoy the results of our past acts. The Nectar of Devotion describes these acts and their reactions as an almost unbreakable chain. Not only are we getting reactions to sins we have committed in the past, but present sinful activity is creating new reactions, reactions we will suffer in the future. And we have material desires within us that we have not yet acted upon. These also will have their reactions.

Devotees sometimes think they should be exempt from suffering because they are surrendered to Krishna. At initiation (the beginning of devotional life), the chain of karmic reactions is broken. Krishna tells us in Bhagavad-gita, sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam sharanam vraja, aham tvam sarva-papebhyo: all papa (sin) will be removed by surrender to Him. But Prabhupada tells us that Krishna will still give us a token reaction as a reminder of the dangers of the material world and as an impetus to greater surrender. He gives us enough suffering to break our attachments. He wants to wean us from sense gratification and free us from further entanglement. And He wants us to love Him completely.

A devotee doesn’t want to be detained in the material world. So he always looks for ways to increase his remembrance of Krishna. Happiness and distress are the same for a devotee because they push the mind toward Krishna. Our real solace as devotees is to spend our days in that spirit.

The Bhagavatam states that liberation becomes the rightful claim for one who thinks like this. The exact word used to describe him is daya-bhak, “a rightful heir.” A pure devotee who is prepared to undergo any tribulation for Krishna consciousness becomes fit to enter the transcendental abode. Sridhara Swami comments, “What does a son have to do to get his father’s property? He simply has to stay alive.” To inherit a place in the spiritual world, we have to stay spiritually alive in all situations.

An example was set by Maharaja Yudhishthira. He was a great devotee of Krishna, but he suffered heavily, both in exile with his brothers and after the Kurukshetra War. Maharaja Yudhishthira was an honest and pious king. So when he thought of all the deaths caused by the war—a war fought simply to enthrone him—he felt weighed down by guilt and sorrow. No one could relieve him. Krishna then advised him to go for instruction to Bhishma.

At that time, Bhishma was lying on a bed formed by the arrows shot through his body. He was in great pain. Yet instead of going to him to ease his last days, Yudhishthira and his four brothers approached Bhishma to ask for help. Bhishmadeva said,

sarvam kala-kritam manye
bhavatam ca yad-apriyam
sapalo yad-vashe loko
vayor iva ghanavalih

“In my opinion, your suffering is all due to inevitable time, under whose control everyone in every planet is carried, just as the clouds are carried by the wind” (Bhagavatam 1.9.14). God’s ways are unknown. Everything happens under the control of time, according to the will of the Lord.

We are so tiny. Who are we to question the vast intelligence of the universe? Who are we to demand to fathom or change that which Krishna has set up? As Prabhupada says about Yudhishthira, we should not be sorry for the inconceivable action of time.

Hrid-vag-vapurbhir vidadhan namas te… All we can do is continue to offer obeisances to Krishna from the core of our hearts. Yudhishthira’s sufferings were not reactions for sins committed in his past, but “everyone has to bear the actions and reactions of time as long as one is within the conditions of the material world.” Even the most pious person has to suffer because of material nature. If this were not so, the material world would be nondifferent from the spiritual world, Vaikuntha—the place of no anxiety.

Bhishma added, “Oh, how wonderful is the influence of inevitable time. It is irreversible—otherwise, how can there be reverses in the presence of King Yudhishthira, the son of the demigod controlling religion; Bhima, the great fighter with a club; the great bowman Arjuna with his mighty weapon Gandiva; and above all, the Lord, the direct well-wisher of the Pandavas?” In the face of that which is inevitable, only a fool holds a grudge. As Bhishmadeva states, there is no need to lament when something is beyond the control of any human being.

A devotee, though, goes beyond the inevitabilities of material nature and sees the hand of Krishna present in everything. Still, precisely what Krishna intends is beyond our knowing. “O king,” said Bhishmadeva, “no one can know the plan of Lord Sri Krishna. Even though great philosophers inquire exhaustively, they are bewildered.” And Prabhupada adds in his purport:

The bewilderment of Maharaja Yudhishthira over his past sinful acts and the resultant sufferings is completely negated by the great authority Bhishma. Bhishma wanted to impress upon Maharaja Yudhishthira that since time immemorial, no one, including such demigods as Siva and Brahma, could ascertain the real plan of the Lord. So what can we understand about it?

Why did this happen to me? Bhishma considers this a useless question. Even the exhaustive philosophical inquiries of the sages cannot ascertain the reason. A devotee can simply have faith in Krishna’s ultimate kindness, continue to worship Him with heart, mind, and words, and continue to patiently accept Krishna’s mercy in whatever form it appears, whether in happiness or distress. In this way, a devotee earns the right to return to the spiritual world.