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.


The Absurd Dialectic

This exchange between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and an existentialist-socialist priest took place in Los Angeles during December of 1973.

Priest: Now, finally, we’re beginning to grasp the real, inner meaning of Christianity and of religion generally: God sharing in the sufferings of man; man learning to live with the inevitability of his pain.

Srila Prabhupada: That is rascaldom—why should God have to share the sufferings of man?

Priest: That way man can more readily accept suffering as an inseparable part of reality.

Srila Prabhupada: Very good priest. People are trying to become happy, and your theory is that they should accept suffering. The very proposition is rascaldom. As spirit souls, part and parcel of the Supreme Spirit, we are naturally trying to minimize suffering and reach His spiritual abode, where suffering is nil. Everyone is trying to be perfectly happy. That is our struggle; that is the meaning of human civilization. We are not submitting to suffering. We don’t want suffering. So if you actually believe in God, if you are actually a theist, then why are you talking like a rascal and saying that we must suffer—that even God must suffer?

Priest: Well, I’m what you might call an “atheist-theist.”

Srila Prabhupada: Hmmm?

Priest: An atheist-theist.

Srila Prabhupada: Atheist-theist? What is this?

Priest: My thinking is that God is essentially our own invention … an idea.

Srila Prabhupada: You think God is an “idea”?

Priest: Yes, though quite a necessary one. The idea of a supreme being or a supreme authority is something we have imposed upon ourselves, apparently because we find it consoling, comforting. Most people are ignorant. And so they need God, like Marx said, as their opiate … their assurance of a happy ending, their cure-all and cover-up for hopelessness and frustration.

Srila Prabhupada: You say God is just an idea. I say God is not just an idea—God is a fact. Can you prove otherwise?

Priest: Well, as I see it there’s no absolute necessity for a supreme being.

Srila Prabhupada: But even your Lenin accepted the necessity of a supreme authority. The only thing was, he wanted to become that supreme authority. Lenin wanted to become God.

Priest: Yes, and he was. For a time he was.

Srila Prabhupada: No, he could not become God. He was under the laws of God—he died. He died. He could not save himself from death. Therefore, he was not the supreme authority. Lenin was forced to die, so that means there must be some other supreme authority.

Priest: Well, everything is ultimately meaningless, anyway. So ultimately death is meaningless.

Srila Prabhupada: Why do you say “meaningless”? If death is meaningless, then why are you so afraid of it? If right now I were coming to kill you, you would be afraid. Why?

Priest: Well, that it’s meaningless doesn’t mean I can’t place some value on it at any given point.

Srila Prabhupada: But still, why do you say “meaningless”? Earlier you said you are fighting for “the revolution” and “social change:” Why are you fighting so hard to spread your meaning if ultimately everything has no meaning?

Priest: Take numbers. They can be useful, but they have no meaning except what we put into them. Actually they’re meaningless.

Srila Prabhupada: If everything is actually meaningless, then what you are doing is meaningless.

Priest: Yes, because ultimately everything is meaningless.

Srila Prabhupada: Then you are less than a rascal. If I called you a rascal I would be giving you some honor. You are working for meaningless things.

Priest: I’m saying everyone can introduce their own meaning … whatever they want.

Srila Prabhupada: Then why are you trying to recruit so many followers? Why not let people do whatever they want?

Priest: Well, doing whatever you want may include proliferating your own meaning.

Srila Prabhupada: No, no, no. You’ve got your own meaning—be satisfied with your own meaning. Don’t bother me.

Priest: Part of my meaning may be to bother you.

Srila Prabhupada: Then my meaning may be to beat you over the head with my shoes!

Priest: But take Lenin. No one ever beat him. He simply was not beaten.

Srila Prabhupada: No, no. Lenin was also beaten. By death. He was beaten, but he would not admit it. He was such a rascal that even though he was being beaten at every moment—even though he was becoming old and diseased, even though he was dying—still he felt, “I am not being beaten:” That means he was Rascal Number One. A sane man admits, “Yes, I am being beaten:” And a rascal will not admit it.

Priest: Well, we have to look at things existentially. As long as something exists, we can place value on it, but when it ceases to exist there is no remorse, nothing to lament.

Srila Prabhupada: If there is nothing to lament, why are you struggling so hard to live a long life and exist as long as possible? Why not simply let yourself die?

Priest: It’s like … if you have some money in your hand, then as long as you have it you can utilize it, but if you lose it, don’t worry. Nothing to worry about. That’s how I feel about death.

Srila Prabhupada: You may talk big words like that, but in practice you worry. You cry.

Priest: Well, I may just fall short of my philosophy. But the philosophy is ideal.

Srila Prabhupada: These are no arguments. No sane man will accept this philosophy. It is not philosophy—it is simply frustration. But frustration is not life. Frustration is frustration.

Priest: Perhaps frustration is the only reality. That’s what Albert Camus felt. He made it one of the main themes in his writings. Frustration, no meaning. And one night he was driving along in his car and reportedly just drove over a cliff. He may have been thinking that if life has no meaning, why not just drive my car over a cliff. Finished himself off.

Srila Prabhupada: Madman. He had to be mad, because he did not know who he is—an eternal soul, part and parcel of God. He went mad because he didn’t know what is to be known.

Priest: Well, millions and millions of people accept his books as practically gospel!

Srila Prabhupada: What is the subject matter?

Priest: The subject matter of his books is that life is ultimately absurd. There is no real meaning to it. We place our own meanings on it.

Srila Prabhupada: Then why was he trying to make sense out of the absurdity’? If everything is absurd, why write books?

Priest: Yes, that’s what Camus seems to have realized … that if everything’s absurd, there is no use speaking or writing or even living.

Srila Prabhupada: The thing is, you are saying that life is absurd, and I am saying that life is not absurd. Who will settle this? Who will settle it—whether you are right or I am right’?

Priest: I don’t think it can ever be settled.

Srila Prabhupada: It will be settled at death. That’s all. A rascal may think foolishly that life is absurd—but death will not be absurd. Mrityuh sarva-harash caham: Lord Krishna says, “Everyone must finally accept Me—as death” Both of us will have to accept death. You don’t want to die, and I don’t want to die; but both of us have to accept that supreme authority. That is God.

Priest: But speaking of Camus … he didn’t care. He died willingly. He wanted to die.

Srila Prabhupada: He did not want to die, but he may have let himself die in that way just to keep his prestige, that’s all.

Priest: I think he wanted to die.

Srila Prabhupada: If you also want to die, then let me kill you now and you’ll be happy.

The City of Nine Gates

An allegory from the Srimad-Bhagavatam sheds light on the mind/body connection.

This article was originally presented at ?Toward a Science of Consciousness,? an international conference attended by leading scientists, physicians, philosophers, and other scholars, and hosted by the University of Arizona in Tucson, April 1996.

Is There A Conscious Self distinct from the physical mechanism of the body? Is there a mind distinct from the brain? Those who answer yes to such questions are called dualists, and they are rare in contemporary science and philosophy.

Dualistic solutions to the mind/body problem are perhaps hampered by, among other things, inadequate analogies and allegories on the topic in Western thought. Whether we turn to Plato?s cave, to the formulations of Descartes, or to the proverbial little green man in the brain, there is apparently not enough substance to inspire the modern researcher of consciousness to seriously consider dualism. But if we turn to chapters 25-29 of Canto Four in the Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad-Bhagavatam, a Sanskrit text from India, we?ll find the elaborate allegory of the City of Nine Gates. The sophistication of this allegory challenges modern researchers to take a second look at dualism.

The central character in the allegory is a king named Puranjana. The Sanskrit word puran-jana means ?one who enjoys in a body.? So the king?s name hints at soul/body dualism. King Puranjana originally existed as a spirit soul in a purely spiritual realm in relationship with a supreme conscious being, God.

Materialists may oppose the introduction of this transcendental realm, which exists outside the material universe knowable by science. But even the materialist cosmology of modern science incorporates a ?transcendental? realm, that is to say, a realm that exists beyond the universe knowable by science, and from which that universe emerged at the time of the Big Bang. This transcendental reality, existing beyond time, space, and matter, is called the quantum mechanical vacuum and is pictured as a pure energy field in which particles appear and instantly disappear. From this sea of virtual particles some expand and continue to exist. According to many cosmologists, our universe is one such expansion.

So both the Bhagavata Purana and the Big Bang cosmology of modern science point to an eternal transcendental existence from which our universe of matter, with its features of time and space, arises. Now, which version of ultimate reality better explains the variegated reality of our experience? Modern cosmologists and other theorists have a great deal of difficulty in coaxing enough variety from the rather smooth and featureless universe that, according to theory, expands from the quantum mechanical vacuum. The origin of consciousness also poses a difficult problem. In light of this, an ultimate reality that is itself conscious and variegated might offer a solution.

Having departed from the spiritual world, by misuse of independence, King Puranjana journeys through the material world, accompanied by Avijnata Sakha (?the unknown friend?). The Unknown Friend corresponds to the Supersoul expansion of God. When Puranjana leaves God and the spiritual world, his memory of them becomes covered. But unknown to Puranjana, God accompanies him on his journey through the material world. According to the Bhagavata Purana, God accompanies all spirit souls in the material world as their Unknown Friend, who observes and sanctions their activities.

In the Western world, mind/brain dualism is identified with French philosopher Rene Descartes, who posited the existence of (1) matter extended in space and (2) mind existing outside space. Cartesian dualism is characterized by an interaction between mind and matter, but explaining how this interaction takes place has proved problematic for advocates of the Cartesian model. For example, how are impressions transmitted from the realm of matter to the completely different realm of mind? Descartes thought the connection between mind and matter occurred in the pineal gland in the brain, an answer most scientists today reject.

According to the Bhagavata Purana, both matter and the souls in the material world are energies of God, and as such both have a single spiritual source. The philosophy of the Bhagavata Purana is thus both dualist and monist simultaneously. The interactions of matter and the soul in the material world are mediated by the Supersoul, who exists inside each material atom and also accompanies each spirit soul. By the arrangement of the Supersoul, impressions of material experience can be channeled to the soul. How this takes place is the subject of the allegory of Puranjana.

Having left the spiritual world, Puranjana, accompanied by Avijnata Sakha (the Supersoul), wanders through the material world. He wants to find a suitable place to enjoy himself. In other words, he searches for a suitable kind of body to inhabit. He tries many kinds of bodies on many planets.

Here we note that each species of life consists of a soul inhabiting a particular kind of body. In this respect, the Bhagavata Purana account differs from that of Descartes, who held that only humans have souls. For Descartes, animals were simply automatons. If one concedes that animals, with all their signs of life and consciousness, are simply automatons, then why not human beings as well? The Bhagavata Purana model avoids this weakness of Descartes?s system.

The Attractive city

Eventually Puranjana comes to a place called Nava Dvara Pura, the City of Nine Gates. He finds it quite attractive. The City of Nine Gates represents the male human body, with its nine openings?two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, the mouth, the anus, and the genital opening. As Puranjana wanders through the gardens of the city, he encounters an extremely beautiful woman. Puranjana is attracted to her, and she is attracted to him. She becomes his queen.

Puranjana, as we have seen, represents the conscious self. The beautiful woman represents buddhi, intelligence. According to the philosophy of the Bhagavata Purana, intelligence is a subtle material energy with discriminatory capabilities like those manifested by artificial intelligence machines. The attraction between King Puranjana and the queen (between the conscious self and the intelligence) is the root of embodied consciousness. The king, it should be noted, has distinct conscious selfhood, with nonmaterial sensory capability, but this capability becomes dormant when he begins his relationship with the queen.

The queen (the subtle material element called intelligence) allows Puranjana (the conscious self) to enjoy the City of Nine Gates (the gross physical body). Employing a computer analogy, we might say Puranjana represents the user, the City of Nine Gates the computer hardware, and the queen the software that allows the user to interface with the hardware and use it for practical purposes.

The queen is not alone, however, but is accompanied by eleven bodyguards and a serpent with five heads. The bodyguards comprise the mind and the ten senses. The ten senses are made up of five knowledge-acquiring senses and five working senses. The five knowledge-acquiring senses are the senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. The five working senses are those of walking, grasping, speaking, reproduction, and evacuation. All ten senses are grouped around the mind and are considered servants of the mind. Each of these servants has hundreds of wives. The wives represent desires for material experience, and the senses act under their pressure.

Senses and Sense Organ

According to the philosophy of the Bhagavata Purana, the senses are different from the physical sense organs. The senses, along with mind and intelligence, are part of the invisible subtle material covering of the soul. The physical organs of sensation (eyes, nose, tongue, ears, skin, legs, arms, mouth, anus, and genitals) are part of the visible gross physical body.

The distinction between subtle senses and physical sense organs is important and offers consciousness researchers a valuable conceptual tool. Let us consider, for example, the problem of phantom limbs. Persons whose legs or arms have been amputated often report that they distinctly feel the missing limb, and even experience quite distinct sensations, such as twinges of pain or itching. The City of Nine Gates allegory provides an explanation for this mysterious phenomenon. Let?s take the case of someone whose arm has been amputated but who still feels the presence of the arm. The arm is one of the working senses. It is composed of two elements, the subtle grasping sense and the physical organ of the arm and hand. Amputation removes the physical organ through which the subtle sense operates, but the subtle sense itself remains, and therefore its presence may be mentally perceived.

Since the subtle sense is material, it may be able to act upon gross physical matter without going through the related physical sense organ. This model may therefore explain some of the phenomena reported in connection with ghosts and apparitions, and in connection with mediums, particularly the mysterious movement of physical objects. This model may also explain how persons are able to experience sense data during near-death experiences when the physical sense organs are incapacitated because of anesthesia or shock.

The senses are compared to attendants of the queen. They serve her by bringing information and performing activity. Together they comprise the array of material intelligence and sensory capabilities, all formed from subtle but nevertheless material energy. They combinedly manufacture a sense of self, with which the king becomes entranced and falsely identifies.

The body itself, the City of Nine Gates, is made of gross material energy, of the kind that can be manipulated by ordinary physics and chemistry. The body is powered by five subtle airs, listed in the AyurVeda, the Vedic medical science, as prana, apana, vyana, samana, and udana. In the Puranjana allegory the five airs, comprising the vital force, are represented by a five-headed serpent.

Unknown Origin

In the allegory, Puranjana asks about the identity and origin of the queen and her attendants. The queen replies,

O best of human beings, I do not know who has begotten me. I cannot speak to you perfectly about this. Nor do I know the names or the origins of the associates with me. O great hero, we only know that we are existing in this place. We do not know what will come after. Indeed, we are so foolish that we do not care to understand who has created this beautiful place for our residence.
My dear gentleman, all these men and women with me are known as my friends, and the snake, who always remains awake, protects this city even during my sleeping hours. So much I know. I do not know anything beyond this. You have somehow or other come here. This is certainly a great fortune for me. I wish all auspicious things for you. You have a great desire to satisfy your senses, and all my friends and I shall try our best in all respects to fulfill your desires. I have just arranged this city of nine gates for you so that you can have all kinds of sense gratification. You may live here for one hundred years, and everything for your sense gratification will be supplied.

The king’s questioning the queen represents the self’s asking material intelligence for the answers to ultimate questions. The answers provided by the queen, as well as her fundamental attitude, reflect those of modern science, which prides itself on avoidance of certain questions and the tentativeness of whatever answers it may provide. “I cannot speak to you perfectly about this. … We only know that we are existing in this place.” Essentially, the queen provides a monist, materialist answer to the king’s questions about his situation.

Description of the Gates

The Bhagavata Purana then provides a more detailed description of the nine gates of the city inhabited by the king and queen. Seven gates are on the surface (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth), and two gates are subterranean (anus and genitals).

Five gates face east. The first two gates on the eastern side are called Khadyota (“glowworm”) and Avirmukhi (“torchlight”). To see, the king exits these two gates and goes to the city called Vibhrajita (“clear vision”). On this journey he is accompanied by his friend Dyuman (the sun, the ruler of the subtle visual sense).

In other words, the king encounters qualia by sensory contact through the physical gates of the body. Qualia are secondary properties of objects, such as color. In consciousness studies, the question of how we perceive qualia is a much debated topic. Do they exist in their own right, in the objects with which they are identified, or do they exist only in our own minds? According to the Bhagavata Purana system, qualia, such as colors, exist as subtle sense objects. They have a reality of their own and are not simply produced within the mind.

That the king goes out through the gates of the eyes to contact subtle sense objects in a city of visual impressions suggests that the seeing process is not simply one of passive reception, but may involve an active process of image acquisition (as in sonar or radar). This may explain such phenomena as traveling clairvoyance, whereby a subject can mentally journey to a particular location, beyond the range of the physical sense organs, and then accurately report visual impressions. This model could also explain visual sensations reported during out-of-body experiences. The exact relationships between the physical sense organs, the subtle senses, and the subtle sense objects are not easily understood, but could perhaps be clarified by experimental work based on the overall model of the City of Nine Gates.

In the eastern part of King Puranjana’s city there are, in addition to the eyes, two gates called Nalini and Nalini, representing the nostrils. The king goes through these two gates with a friend called Avadhuta (representing breathing airs) to the town of Saurabha (“odor”). The last gate on the eastern side is Mukhya (“mouth”), through which the king goes with two friends to the towns of taste sensation and nourishment.

Through the two gates on the northern and southern sides (the ears), the king goes to places where different kinds of sound are heard. Through the gates on the western side of the city, the king goes to the towns where sensations of evacuation and sexual pleasure are experienced. During his journeys, the king takes help from two blind men, Nirvak and Peshaskrit, who represent the arms and legs.

Illusory Identification

In all his activities, the king follows the lead of the queen. In other words, the conscious self in the material world becomes conditioned by material intelligence. The Bhagavata Purana says,

When the queen drank liquor, King Puranjana also engaged in drinking. When the queen dined, he used to dine with her, and when she chewed, King Puranjana used to chew along with her.
When the queen sang, he also sang, and when the queen laughed, he also laughed. When the queen talked loosely, he also talked loosely, and when the queen walked, the king walked behind her.
When the queen would stand still, the king would also stand still, and when the queen would lie down in bed, he would also follow and lie down with her.
When the queen sat, he would also sit, and when the queen heard something, he would follow her to hear the same thing.
When the queen saw something, the king would also look at it, and when the queen smelled something, the king would follow her to smell the same thing.
When the queen touched something, the king would also touch it, and when the dear queen was lamenting, the poor king also had to follow her in lamentation. In the same way, when the queen felt enjoyment, he also enjoyed, and when the queen was satisfied, the king also felt satisfaction.

As noted above, an important question that arises concerning dualist solutions to the mind/body question is how a nonmaterial conscious mind interacts with material sense objects. In this model, there is an answer to this question. As seen above, the interaction is based on illusory identification.

To understand the nature of this illusory identification, we first need to readjust the familiar mind/body dualism to a triadic conception incorporating (1) a nonmaterial conscious self, (2) a subtle material body formed of mind and intelligence, and (3) a physical body composed of gross matter.

In this model, the mind is a subtle material substance, associated with material intelligence. Mind is at the center of the subtle senses, which are in turn connected to the physical sense organs, which bring to the mind sense data in the form of subtle sense objects.

Here yet another question arises. In consciousness studies one is faced with the problem of how the various kinds of sense data are presented in an integrated fashion. Even various elements of the visual sense, such as the perception of color, movement, and form, are located in different parts of the brain. Sounds are processed in other parts of the brain. How are all these elements combined?

In the Bhagavata Purana model, the integrating function is performed by the mind, which receives sensory inputs from the subtle senses grouped around it. The mind is not, however, conscious. So the mind might be compared to multimedia computer software capable of integrating audio and visual materials into a single display, making use of a variety of inputs and source materials. The material intelligence, represented by the queen, directs the living entity’s consciousness to the integrated display of sense data. Intelligence, as a subtle material energy, is not itself conscious, but it mimics the behavior of consciousness. So the intelligence attracts the attention of the conscious self, causing the self to identify with it, just as we identify with the image of an actor on a movie screen.

By identification with material intelligence, which is in turn connected to the mind’s integrated display of sense data, consciousness is connected with the sense data. This connection is not direct. The indirect connection of the conscious self with gross matter arises from the self’s false identification with the action of a subtle material energy, intelligence. The extremely subtle material element that connects the conscious self with material intelligence is called ahankara, or false ego. The whole system is set up and directed by the Supersoul.

According to the Bhagavata Purana picture, the conscious self originally experiences nonmaterial sense objects through nonmaterial senses. This takes place in the spiritual world, with God. But having turned from this original situation, the self is placed in a material body in the material world. Identifying with this artificial situation, the self forgets its own nature and that of God. But God remains with the self as the Supersoul, the Unknown Friend. If the self tires of the artificial material reality and desires to return to its original position, the Unknown Friend will reawaken the original spiritual senses of the self and reconnect them with their spiritual sense objects.

The whole system therefore resembles a computer-generated virtual reality. In virtual-reality systems, the user’s normal sensory inputs are replaced by computer-generated displays. But just as a person can turn off the virtual- reality display and return to normal sensory experience, so the conscious self in the artificial sensory environment of the material world can return to its original spiritual sensory experience.

Attacked by Time

In the Bhagavata Puranaallegory, King Puranjana and his queen enjoy life for some time in the City of Nine Gates. Eventually, however, the City of Nine Gates comes under attack by a king named Candavega. Candavega represents time, and his name literally means “very swiftly passing away.” Candavega commands an army of 360 male Gandharva soldiers and their 360 female companions. Together these represent the days and nights of the year. When Candavega’s army attacks, the five-headed serpent (the vital force) tries to defend the City of Nine Gates. The serpent fights the attackers for one hundred years but eventually becomes weak, his weakness causing anxiety for the king and his associates. Finally, the attacking soldiers overwhelm the defenders and set the City of Nine Gates ablaze. As it becomes obvious that the battle is being lost, King Puranjana is overcome with anxious thoughts of his wife and his relatives and associates. Then the commander of the invading forces arrests the king and takes him away along with his followers, including the five-headed serpent. As soon as they are gone, the attackers destroy the City of Nine Gates, smashing it to dust. Even as he is being led away, the king cannot remember his Unknown Friend, the Supersoul. Instead, he thinks only of his wife, the queen. He then takes another birth, this time as a woman.

In this part of the allegory, we see how the conscious self, accompanied by the mind, intelligence, and subtle senses, leaves the gross physical body. When they leave, the gross physical body disintegrates. The conscious self then receives another gross physical body. The kind of body received depends on the condition of the subtle material body, composed of mind, intelligence, and subtle senses. The subtle material body is the template upon which the gross physical body is constructed. This model allows one to account for reports of past-life memories. In the Bhagavata Purana model, the mind is the storehouse of memory from past lives.

In his next life, King Puranjana becomes Vaidarbhi, the daughter of King Vidarbha. When grown, Vaidarbhi becomes the queen of King Malayadhvaja. At the end of his life, Malayadhvaja retires to the forest and takes up the process of mystic yoga. The Bhagavata Purana (4.28.40) informs us, “King Malayadhvaja attained perfect knowledge by being able to distinguish the Supersoul from the individual soul. The individual soul is localized, whereas the Supersoul is all-pervasive. He became perfect in knowledge that the material body is not the soul but that the soul is the witness of the material body.” In this state of higher awareness, Malayadhvaja, following the yoga process, deliberately leaves his material body and achieves liberation from material existence.

Queen Vaidarbhi (formerly King Puranjana) is overwhelmed with grief at her husband’s departure. At this point, King Puranjana’s Unknown Friend (the Supersoul) appears before Vaidarbhi as a brahmana sage. The brahmana says to Vaidarbhi, “My dear friend, even though you cannot immediately recognize Me, can’t you remember that in the past you had a very intimate friend? Unfortunately, you gave up My company and accepted a position as enjoyer of this material world. … You were simply captivated in this body of nine gates.” The brahmana then instructs Vaidarbhi further about her original position as a purely spiritual self in the spiritual world.

I have extracted only the principal elements of the City of Nine Gates allegory. The complete account is much more detailed and allows one to make an even more subtle and refined model of self/mind/body interaction. This model does not fit easily into present categories of the mind/body debate. Although dualist, it partakes also of idealism and monism. It does, however, allow one to integrate many categories of evidence from normal and paranormal science, as well as evidence from humanity’s wisdom traditions, into a rich synthesis, providing fruitful lines of research confirming and refining a complex dualist model of mind/body interaction.

The Flowering of Consciousness

Man has the chance to bloom spiritually by raising himself to the highest level of love of God.

The Vedic scriptures divide consciousness into five categories, namely covered, shrunken, budding, blooming, and fully bloomed.

Trees and plants, for example, are almost inert. They fall into the “covered consciousness” category. They seem to show no sign of consciousness, but when we observe them carefully, we see they have a limited consciousness.

Other living entities, such as worms, insects, and other animals, are in “shrunken consciousness.” They are not as covered as the plants, but their consciousness is not fully developed either.

Human beings have “budding consciousness.” A bud appears shrunken, but it has the potential to bloom into a flower. Human consciousness has similar potential; it appears shrunken like the animal’s, but humans have the innate ability to develop their consciousness to an almost unlimited extent, up to the point of knowing the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Other species do not have this special ability. That’s why the Vedic scriptures consider the human form of life the most elevated. Indeed, all scriptures consider human life especially sacred.

When a human being begins to inquire sincerely about the Absolute Truth, his budlike spiritual consciousness begins to expand or evolve. That is the “blooming” state of consciousness. When as a result of his inquiry he practices regulated spiritual discipline, he evolves further and further. Finally, he attains complete God realization, the “fully bloomed” state of consciousness.

God realization is possible because the real identity of a living being is the spirit soul, not the material body. The soul is not a product of material nature; it comes from the spiritual nature. When the soul falls into the lower levels of consciousness, it becomes covered by matter—first by a subtle, or ethereal, material body made of mind, intelligence, and false ego, then by a gross material body made of earth, water, fire, air, and ether.

The bodies we perceive with our material vision are gross material bodies. Within the gross body is the subtle body, which we cannot see with our eyes but can perceive by our intelligence.

Finer than this subtle material body of mind, intelligence, and false ego is the nonmaterial soul, which animates the body. The soul is the source of consciousness, the source of life in the body. The soul is the “I.” As long as the soul is in the body, the body appears alive, consciousness flows through the body, and the covered soul misidentifies the body as the self.

An embodied soul transmigrates from one body to another as a result of his previous activities. His every action leaves an imprint on the mind, or the subtle body, and accordingly the subtle body takes its shape.

For example, if one acts like an angel, his subtle body becomes like that of an angel. If one acts like a pig, his subtle body becomes like that of a pig. When the soul leaves the gross body at death, the subtle body carries the soul to an appropriate womb determined by the shape of the subtle body. In this way the soul transmigrates from one body to another according to the state of consciousness it has developed.

The Vedic scriptures describe that one gets a human body after transmigrating through eight million lower species. Gradually each fallen soul evolves through the various stages of consciousness—covered, shrunken, and budding. At the budding stage the embodied soul has the chance to develop fully his spiritual consciousness by awakening his relationship with God, the supremely conscious being. If he neglects that opportunity, he may again undergo transmigration through the covered, shrunken, and budding stages.

The subhuman species are engrossed in bodily consciousness. Often human beings are also, but human beings can raise themselves to higher levels. That is the main difference between man and the animals. If a man, in spite of his higher faculties, simply pursues the animal propensities of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending, he grossly misuses a wonderful gift. He misses a rare opportunity.

A human being, because of his elevated intelligence, has the freedom to choose, either to evolve spiritually and get out of material consciousness altogether or to go down to lower consciousness again.

Less intelligent persons often consider sensual enjoyment the goal of life and squander their lives struggling for objects pleasing to their senses. Their absorption in material ambitions makes lower consciousness their choice by default.

Intelligent persons realize the futility of such endeavors for bodily pleasures. They realize that everything in the material realm is temporary. By finer intelligence they understand that all attempts to enjoy end in bondage and misery. That’s why throughout history our greatest thinkers were averse to material enjoyments.

But mere aversion is not enough. One maybe averse to material enjoyments and renounce the world, but the desire for enjoyment is natural. Because the soul is a minute sparklike part of the supreme enjoyer, Krishna, the soul has all His qualities in minute degree; therefore the innate tendency for seeking enjoyment is inseparable from the soul. To understand the soul is to understand that we cannot altogether suppress or eliminate desire for enjoyment.

A truly intelligent person, therefore, tries to find the standard of real enjoyment. If such a person is serious and has good fortune, he comes in touch with a genuine spiritual teacher, by whose mercy he gets to know what real enjoyment is. With the spiritual master’s guidance he gets the opportunity to reestablish his long-lost relationship with God.

This awakening of the soul’s dormant love of God is an absolute necessity because the soul, as a sparklike part of God, is never fully satisfied unless united with Him. This is the central message of the Vedic texts.

The Vedic scriptures advise us that even if we want to enjoy material things, instead of making independent attempts for fulfilling our desires, we should render devotional service and pray to the Lord for the fulfillment of such desires. This is not the purest standard of loving devotion, but at least it acknowledges the Lord as the supreme proprietor. Naturally, as one grows in this awareness, one realizes the need to offer everything to its true proprietor. The making of such offerings is the beginning of devotional service to the Lord.

The word devotion implies an intense, trancelike love. We experience that love by offering God objects we consider valuable or beautiful. We know how intense is the love between a young man and woman, but how often does our love for the Lord reach that high intensity? Still, the love between a man and a woman is nothing but a perverted reflection of the true love of the individual soul for the Lord.

Material nature is itself a perverted reflection of the spiritual reality. It is illusory, like a dream. The only difference is that a dream is individual while this dream called physical reality is collective. But beyond this so- called reality is the absolute reality, upon which the perverted reflection is based. When our consciousness evolves and we transcend bondage to the material body, we can develop a loving relationship with the Lord. Then we will be qualified to enter that reality, where real enjoyment is ever- present.

There is no real joy in this material world. It’s only a mirage. It appears that joy is here or there, but when we run after it, it runs away from us. That’s why to a greater or lesser degree, everyone is frustrated sooner or later with material life; we do not get our heart’s desire. The reason for this frustration is that we are spiritual, not material.

Our craving for enjoyment is also spiritual, but having forgotten about our spiritual nature, we search in vain for enjoyment within the material world. We identify with the material body and try to enjoy matter, but we can’t. Naturally we become frustrated. If you take a fish out of water and offer it all comforts on land, will it ever be happy? In the same way, we are of the spiritual nature. We can never be made truly happy by material enjoyments.

In the modern age we have made much scientific advancement, but ultimately that has confused people even more. People have become more atheistic—hence more materialistic—under the false hope that science will provide answers to our quest for happiness. Actually we see that in spite of our amenities, economic development, social security programs, and so forth, suicide, homicide, rape, abortion, and other crimes continue to increase. These are obvious symptoms of an unhappy society.

If one wants to taste factual pleasure, he must develop spiritual consciousness, which culminates in love of God. That’s why every religion teaches us to pray, to call out the name of the Lord in all earnestness, so that we can become conscious of His divine form. All scriptures recommend the chanting of the Lord’s holy name. The spiritual sound penetrates the coverings of matter and enables the spiritual self to see the Absolute Truth face to face. That is the topmost state of consciousness, consciousness in full bloom. It is the ultimate evolution of man. not only for today, but for all time.

The Night-and-day Dream

This conversation between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and a university student took place in Los Angeles, in January of 1974.

Student: In your books you say this world is like a dream.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. It is a dream.

Student: How is it a dream?

Srila Prabhupada: For example, last night you had some dream, but now it has no value. It is gone. And again, tonight when you sleep, you’ll forget all these things and dream. You won’t remember, when you are dreaming tonight, “I’ve got my house; I’ve got my wife.” You’ll forget it all. So all of this is a dream.

Student: Is it true, or is it not true?

Srila Prabhupada: How could it be true? At night you forget it. Do you remember when you sleep that you’ve got your wife and you’re sleeping on a bed? When you have gone some three thousand miles away and seen something totally different in your dream, do you remember that you’ve got a place to reside in?

Student: No.

Srila Prabhupada: So this is a dream. Tonight, what you are seeing now will become only a dream, just as what you saw last night—now you know it was only a dream. So both are dreams. You are simply a visitor, that’s all. You are seeing this dream and that dream. You, the spirit soul, are factual. But your material body and the material surroundings you are seeing—this is a dream.

Student: But I have the impression that this experience is true and my cream is not true. What is the difference—

Srila Prabhupada: No. This experience is all untrue! How could it be true? If it were true, how could you forget it at night? How could you forget it, if it were true? At night do you remember all this?

Student: No. I don’t remember.

Srila Prabhupada: Then—how could it be true? Just as you don’t remember the dream you saw last night and so you call it a “dream,” similarly this experience—because you forget it at night—this is also a dream….

Student: But I have the impress—

Srila Prabhupada: This is a daydream; that is a night dream. That’s all. When you dream at night, then you perceive that as being real. Yes. You think that is real. It is a dream, but you are crying, “There is a tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” Where is the tiger? But you are seeing it as fact—a tiger. “I’m being killed by a tiger.” But where is the tiger? … Or you dream you are embracing some beautiful girl. Where is that beautiful girl? But actually it is happening.

Student: It is happening?

Srila Prabhupada: In one sense it is happening, because there is discharge of semen. Nocturnal emission. But where is that girl? Is it not a dream? But similarly, this so-called real-life experience is also a dream. You are getting the impression of factuality, but it is a dream. Therefore it is called maya-sukhaya, illusory happiness. Your nighttime happiness and your daytime happiness are the same thing. At night you are dreaming you are embracing a nice beautiful girl, and there is no such thing. Similarly, in the daytime also, whatever “advancement” you are making—this is also like that. Maya-sukhaya: you are dreaming, “This process will make me happy” or “That process will make me happy,” but the whole process is only a dream. You are taking this daydream as reality because the duration is long. At night when you dream, the duration is just half an hour. But this daydream lasts for twelve hours or more. That is the difference. This is a twelve-hour dream, and that is a half-hour dream—but actually both of them are dreams. Because one is a twelve-hour dream, you are accepting it as real. That is called illusion.

Student: Illusion.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes…. You are making a distinction between an animal and yourself, but you are forgetting that just as the animal will die, you will also die. So where is your advancement? Will you remain forever? You will also die. So where is your advancement over an animal? That is stated in the Vedic literatures. Ahara- nidra-bhaya-maithunam ca/ samanam etat pashubhir naranam: this business—eating, sleeping, sex life, and defending—this is also the animal’s business, and you are doing the same. So how are you distinct from an animal? You will die; the animal will die. But if you say, “I will die after one hundred years, and this ant will die after one hour,” that does not ‘mean that you are in reality. It is a question of time. Or take this huge universe—it will all be destroyed. As your body will be destroyed, this universe will also be destroyed. Annihilation. Dissolution. Nature’s way—the whole thing will be dissolved. Therefore, it is a dream. It is a long-duration dream, that’s all. Nothing else. But the advantage of having this human body is that in this dream, you can realize the reality—God. That is the advantage. So if you don’t take advantage of this dream, then you are missing everything.

Student: So I’m half-asleep?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. This is the situation. Therefore, the Vedic literatures say, uttishtha: “Get up! Get up! Get up!” Jagrata: “Become awakened!” Prapya varan nibodhata: “Now you’ve got the opportunity, utilize it.” Tamasi ma jyotir gama: “Don’t stay in darkness, come to the light.” These are Vedic injunctions. And we are teaching the same thing. “Reality is here—Krishna. Don’t remain in this dark place. Come to this higher consciousness.”

The Urge for Cosmic Specialness

Heroism is an essential feature of human nature. But what makes the best type of hero? Do you have what it takes?

Every so often I come across an article lamenting the shortage of real heroes today. The latest was an amusing piece in Newsweek by Ralph Schoenstein, who describes a visit to his daughter’s third-grade class. He asked the twenty students of eight and nine to name the three greatest people they had heard about:

“’Michael Jackson, Brooke Shields, and Boy George, said a small blond girl, giving me one from all three sexes.

“’Michael Jackson, Spider-Man, and God, “a boy then said, naming a new holy trinity.”

Other favorites were Batman, Ronald Reagan, and Mr. T, “a hero who likes to move people by saying, ‘Sucker, I’ll break your face.’” Schoenstein was not impressed. His heroes are more traditional types—Winston Churchill, Marie Curie, Abraham Lincoln, and Albert Einstein. Still, he had anticipated hearing from the children the names he did. What surprised him were the eight children who said “Me,” naming themselves as their own heroes. Schoenstein disapproved. He concluded:

“It’s sad to see the faces on Mount Rushmore replaced by rock stars, brawlers, and cartoons, but it’s sadder still to see Mount Rushmore replaced by a mirror.”

Many people would agree with Schoenstein. They would be more disappointed by the eight children who said “Me” than by the ones who named a cross-dresser, a cartoon wall-climber, and a tough-talking brawler as their heroes. As for myself, I wholeheartedly agree with Schoenstein about the shortage of heroes, but I disagree about those eight children. Had I been in that classroom, I would have advised them to be very serious about being heroes. I would have encouraged them to become the best of all possible heroes.

Human Nature and the Heroic

No popular writer in recent times has done a more brilliant job explaining the psychology of heroism than the late Ernest Becker. In The Denial of Death, he presents vigorous arguments and clear, scholarly evidence to support his conviction that personal heroism is a universal and essential feature of human nature. Critics praised The Denial of Death as a “rare masterpiece,” and the book won Becker the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Finding many of Becker’s main ideas in agreement with the philosophy of Krishna consciousness, I took the critical acclaim his book had received as an indirect appreciation of the Krishna consciousness movement. His analysis of heroism explains why I disagree with Schoenstein.

According to Becker’s analysis, heroism is a “vital truth” that has somehow not received the attention it deserves. Yet thinkers always knew it was important. Around the turn of the century, William James noted, “Mankind’s common instinct for reality … has always held the world to be a theatre for heroism.” But how deeply rooted, how central, the urge to heroism is in human nature, no one had fully appreciated. Now, says Becker, “we have achieved the remarkable feat of exposing that reality in a scientific way.” That urge is the very reason people still thrill to the works of Emerson and Nietzsche: “We like to be reminded that our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic.”

Yet surprisingly, we repress our urge to heroism. Becker writes:

We disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bankbook to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth. Or by having only a better home in the neighborhood, a bigger car, brighter children. But underneath throbs the ache for cosmic specialness no matter how we mask it in concerns of smaller scope.

But if everyone feels the pang of desire for cosmic specialness, the urge to heroism must be natural. Why, then, do we try to repress it? Why are we intimidated or shocked, as Schoenstein was, when someone honestly admits his heroic urge?

Becker sees a very good reason for this. Imagine what would happen if every man, woman, and child came forward and in unison admitted their urge to heroism, shrilly demanding their due—a primary sense of value—from society. How could any society meet such an honest demand? If suddenly people began clamoring to claim their sense of cosmic specialness, it would wreak havoc everywhere. It would, in Becker’s words, “release such pent-up force as to be devastating to societies as they now are.”

We repress our urge to heroism, therefore, to avoid a social catastrophe. We feign indifference toward heroism while within we long for and quietly work at it. The main function of a cultural system, says Becker, is to provide us with an orderly vehicle for realizing our urge to heroism. Becker describes with precision the workings of a cultural system.

The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules of behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system. What anthropologists call “cultural relativity” is thus really the relativity of hero- systems the world over, … from the “high” heroism of a Churchill, a Mao, or a Buddha, to the “low” heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, the simple priest; the plain everyday, earthy heroism wrought by gnarled hands guiding a family through hunger and disease.”

From here on Becker develops his arguments to show that our urge to heroism is a manifestation of an innate desire to achieve immortality, to deny death, and, ultimately, to become God. How else can a person justify his bid to become the object of primary value in the cosmic scheme? “He would have to become as God,” replies Becker. Then he queries, “What right do you have to play God?”

In a nutshell, Becker thinks it a foolhardy illusion for us to try to become God. He considers the living being too insignificant, too “fragmentary,” to fake God’s place.

Maximum Cosmic Specialness

Becker’s conclusion here agrees with the Krishna conscious understanding of why the pure soul leaves the spiritual world and comes to the material world in the first place: to usurp the position of God, to try to be the biggest hero. Knowing that motive, however, is only a partial understanding of our urge to heroism. On the deepest spiritual level, our urge to heroism stems from the fact that we are, in a limited sense, “as God.”

Constitutionally, each soul is part and parcel of God, the Supreme Soul, who is the epitome of cosmic specialness. Being small “samples” of the Supreme, we naturally experience, to a small degree, a desire for cosmic specialness, because the qualities of the whole are found, in lesser degree, in its parts. (Although unaware of this important ontological fact, Becker, as we shall see, still arrives at a correct conclusion.) A part is never equal to the whole; rather, experience shows that the part serves the whole. This means that the only way we can realize our fullest heroic potential is through our natural relation of service to God.

But how do we realize our fullest heroic potential in relationship to God? Becker’s answer is in complete consonance with Krishna consciousness: “In the game of life and death no one stands taller than any other, unless it be a true saint.”

Consider the logic of this conclusion. After all, if we cannot fulfill our urge to heroism, even up to the extent of trying to become God, then the logical thing would be to become a hero on God’s behalf, by excelling in His service. This intimate and confidential relationship with God, the position of the saint, is described in the Srimad- Bhagavatam (9.4.68). The Lord says, “Saints are always within the core of My heart, and I am always in their hearts. My devotees do not know anything else but Me, and I do not know anyone else but them.” This is maximum cosmic specialness for the minute soul.

The Knight of Faith

To symbolize the heroic stature of a true saint, Becker borrowed the term “knight of faith” from the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard. It conveys the image of an ideal knight, one who is pure-hearted, unselfish, courageous, merciful, tolerant, chivalrous, and dedicated to truth and goodness in the struggle against ignorance and evil—all traits we expect to find in a saintly person. Says Becker:

This figure is the man who lives in faith, who has given over the meaning of life to His Creator, and who lives centered on the energies of his Maker. He accepts whatever happens in this visible dimension without complaint, lives his life as a duty, faces his death without a qualm, … no task is too frightening to be beyond his courage. The great strength of such an ideal is that it allows one to be open, generous, courageous, to touch others’ lives and to enrich them and to open them in turn. As the knight of faith has no fear-of- life-and-death trip to lay on to others, he does not cause them to shrink back upon themselves, he does not coerce or manipulate them.

The knight of faith is the most awe-inspiring and challenging of ideals. Here is a hero-model fit only for those rare persons who recognize their urge to heroism and who have resolved to go all the way in fulfilling it. Success on this path, however, requires an extraordinary measure of faith—faith only a hero can muster. How else can a person surrender to the will of another, especially of one who is invisible?

Even Kierkegaard, Becker points out, could not muster that much faith. He understood life’s central challenge, but he couldn’t meet it. He couldn’t make “the leap of faith” he considered requisite—for all men who would commune with transcendent God. Nor could Becker meet the challenge. This indicates that to answer the call to full heroism, intellectual understanding is not enough.

How, then, does one develop the necessary faith? “Sainthood,” wrote Becker, “is a matter of grace and not of human effort.” Yet he did not explain how faith is to be achieved. But Kierkegaard did. In Fear and Trembling he indicated that the aspiring knight of faith should follow the example and instruction of an already perfected knight.

I candidly admit that in my practice I have not found any reliable example of the knight of faith… . But if I knew where there was such a knight of faith, I would make a pilgrimage to him on foot, for his prodigy interest me absolutely. I would not let go of him for an instant … I would regard myself as secured for life, and would divide my time between looking at him and practicing the exercises myself.

The idea Kierkegaard expresses here is a fundamental principle of Krishna consciousness, that one must accept a qualified spiritual master and through him receive the grace necessary for sainthood. Such persons are very, very rare. Kierkegaard confessed that he searched years for one, but to no avail. A spiritual master must be a true hero, a knight of faith who has been trained by his own spiritual master and who is now ready to train others. By precept and by example, he must train his disciple, the would-be knight of faith, to develop full faith in God.

The knight of faith is a hero. His life is an adventurous odyssey, as heroically he strives to overcome all obstacles on the spiritual path. He learns to control his senses, to subdue his passions, to relinquish material attachments, to enlighten others about spiritual life, and to transcend fear of death and death itself. Finally, by God’s grace, he enters the spiritual world, never to return to this place of birth and death. Krishna sums up this ultimate victory of the knight of faith in the Bhagavad-gita (8.15): “After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection.”

Yet those who are ignorant of the ideal heroism of the knight of faith often look upon him with disfavor. Sometimes they hold that saintly life is irrelevant to society and appeals only to the inept and the weak-hearted. In fact, however, the calling to be a knight of faith is for the strongest, most heroic individuals. This Becker appreciated despite his inability to answer the call: “To renounce the world and oneself, to lay the meaning of it to the powers of creation, is the hardest thing for man to achieve—and so it is fitting that this should fall to the strongest personality type.

Anything less is less than full development, even if it seems like weakness and compromise to the best thinkers.”

The Crisis of Society

In the knight of faith, we have the highest expression of the urge to heroism and cosmic specialness. Now, what society, what cultural hero-system, is best suited for creating knights of faith?

Alas, here Becker’s brilliance fades. For all his insightful analysis of the psychology of heroism, he could not answer this all-important question. He acknowledged that many religions describe an ideal akin to the knight of faith, but he could not recommend any of them. Since, as he saw things, a religion and the culture surrounding it are inseparable, if for some reason the culture is discredited, “then the church supporting that culture automatically discredits itself.” And Becker discredited Western culture with its emphasis on “the acquisition and display of consumer goods, the piling up of money and privileges,” as ignoble, debasing heroics. Consequently, he found religion “no longer valid as a hero system.” The crisis of society, therefore, is that a wide breach exists between culture at large and the ideal of saintly heroics set by the various religions.

In terms of Becker’s prize-winning thesis that cultural systems are really hero-systems and that the ultimate hero is the saint, the solution to the crisis of society is a social system wherein cultural and saintly heroics are integrated into one smooth synthesis. Becker knew of no current society wherein such a religiocultural synthesis occurred. The Vedic culture of ancient India, however, perfectly fulfills the requirements of a true hero-system.

The Vedic culture—technically called the varnashrama system—by scientifically integrating religious and cultural heroics, aims at making its participants into knights of faith. In Vedic society this is achieved largely by the members individually working on developing saintly character while simultaneously holding their particular social and occupational positions. Saintly character is revered as the topmost heroic achievement and is the common ideal sought by all citizens. In Vedic society, no one has to compete for this topmost heroism, because it depends not on the amassing of money and privileges but on a change of heart.

This is in stark contrast to other cultural systems, where one must invariably earn his sense of heroic worth by subduing or vanquishing his competitors. In the Vedic system, the more a person can help others in the pursuit of sainthood, the more he is successful in his endeavor to be a knight of faith. This paramount concern for others and the offer of topmost heroism to all are the true excellence of Vedic culture. As Becker said, “The great strength of such an ideal is that it allows one … to touch others’ lives and to enrich them and to open them in turn.”

Up until about ten centuries ago in India, the Vedic culture existed in an unadulterated state. The system began to disintegrate after India was repeatedly invaded by heroes of other cultures, feverish to earn their sense of cosmic specialness by lording it over others. In recent times, therefore, no one has seen the Vedic system fully operative. What has been perjoratively labeled “the caste system” is but the vestiges of the once glorious Vedic culture of India. Today, it is all but lost. In fact, hardly anyone even has a true conception of Vedic culture. The Krishna consciousness movement, however, is trying to restore it, the only culture designed to produce knights of faith, and even to propagate it all over the world.

The Krishna consciousness movement is based on the ideals of Vedic culture. Even before Becker wrote The Denial of Death, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual master of the Krishna consciousness movement, described Krishna consciousness as “a cultural presentation for the respiritualization of society,” in his introduction to the Srimad- Bhagavatam.


Only because of his misconception about what a real hero is, Schoenstein was dismayed by the eight children who named themselves as heroes. He was alarmed to think that young children could be so self-centered. He couldn’t see their potential for becoming the best 6f all possible heroes.

Had I been there, I would have told them about the Vedic culture and encouraged them to take to Krishna consciousness and become knights of faith. Nor would Schoenstein need to worry about Mount Rushmore being replaced by a mirror. A knight of faith is humble; he never seeks profit, adoration, or distinction for himself. His only interest is to be engaged in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He looks upon his fellow knights as the real heroes and aspires to become their menial servant. How about you, would you like to be a real hero?

The World of Names

Everywhere you look there are so many names. Names for packages, names for signposts, names for places, names for plants, names for people. Names are convenient, and maybe a little confusing.

“History’s first psychotherapy session, “on a battlefield, raises a question: “John,” “Jane,” “Black,” “White,” “Girl,” “Boy,” “Student,” “Soldier”—what’s in a name?

People hailed him as a great military hero. They said he was as strong as a lion. With bow and arrow he was beyond belief: he could hit a hundred-foot-high target obscured by the spokes of a chariot wheel—even if he had to take aim by looking at the target’s rippling reflection in a water pail. More than once he’d fought off hundreds of soldiers without any help.

But today, as the time for his next battle drew near, Arjuna was shaking with anxiety. Looking over the two armies from a vantage point midway between them, Arjuna slumped down on his chariot, in despair.

His physical strength hadn’t failed him. He was still the match of any soldier on the enemy side (with the exception of Bhishma, perhaps). But even Bhishma’s skill and fortitude couldn’t have driven Arjuna into this deep depression.

The renowned warrior had lost his courage because he was about to take part in a civil war—a war in which he would be pitted against his grandfather, his father-in-law, his cousins, his uncles, and the very teacher at whose feet he’d learned the art of war. Others, too, on both sides, were now poised to plunge arrows, swords, and lances into the bodies of their relatives and superiors. Arjuna’s skin burned and his mouth dried up as he contemplated the horrible events to come.

“How can any good come from this?” he thought aloud. “What use would our victory be if we should ruin our whole society, our whole culture, in the process? We’ll rip apart the fabric of family ties, and then our civilization will lie in shreds.”

His only desire was to leave at once—to leave the battlefield and leave his profession. To go to the woods, perhaps, and take up the life of a beggar. “I’d rather live by other people’s money than by my relatives’ blood,” he decided.

Uncles, cousins, teachers, grandfathers, fathers-in-law, sons, brothers-in-law—the very network of social relationships that before had given Arjuna so much pleasure, now had driven him to a nervous breakdown. How could he kill these people? He knew the enemy soldiers by name—names that sound strange to us (like Duryodhana, Bhurishrava, Drona), but names that signified intimate relationships to him. Meditating on those names and relationships, Arjuna wept out of compassion and hopelessness.

Arjuna’s self-searching, recorded in the opening pages of the Bhagavad-gita, was a natural response to a terrifying situation. Caught in a web of conflicting social designations, he considered that his only way out was to change his own designation from “soldier” to “beggar.” But soon Arjuna’s trusted friend and teacher, Lord Krishna (the Supreme Personality of Godhead) was to show him that even as a beggar he would be unhappy. The answer, said Lord Krishna, was to stop thinking of himself as “soldier,” “’beggar,” “student,” and start looking for his real identity on a level deeper than that. Otherwise, Krishna suggested, Arjuna’s life would be full of anxiety.

The same is true for me. It’s a commonsense fact of my life that if somebody approaches me at my job or on the street and asks me in an offhand way who I am, then I’ll probably answer with my name. Names are convenient. They make social interaction possible. How could we ever finalize legal documents, sign checks, introduce ourselves at parties, reminisce about old friends, if we didn’t use names? It would be nearly impossible.

But the name is not the same as the thing named. In this connection we usually think of Shakespeare: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” How much more true that is, then, of a human being. As convenient as names are, they’re just superficial concepts of our personal identity.

Names are superficial, because, for one thing, each of us has little choice about the designations that fix us in this world, the world of names. For instance, take that triumphant cheer heard in hundreds of languages, in thousands of maternity rooms: “It’s a boy!” Suddenly, that little human being who had been a mystery, an it, has been pinned down. It’s a boy. For the parents, the relatives, the family’s friends, and for the whole culture, that means a lot. A complex structure of obligations and expectations has been set up. Starting with blue (not pink) baby clothes, moving through baseball and Boy Scouts, on through high school to high finance, that little person’s trajectory through life has to a great extent been determined for him just by the pronouncing of the word boy.

You may object that the word boy alone isn’t determining the baby’s future. It’s the condition that the word denotes. If John Doe had a baby girl and yet insisted on calling her a boy, he wouldn’t be able to make his dream come true simply on the authority of the name itself. Surely there’s a real quality, the baby’s sex, that the name is intended only to represent, and not to be. Am I stretching the point to call so much attention to a simple word?

Yes, I would be stretching the point if all we had to contend with was one or two names—“boy,” “girl” “man,” “woman” “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” Then life, and self- awareness, would be an easy job. But we don’t live in that kind of world. Like Arjuna, we live in a world of millions of names. And to make things worse, even the names we call our own are usually assigned to us before we have any choice. Somebody’s waiting for us, before we emerge, with a complete outfit of names ready to put on us. We don’t have any say in the matter. We’re controlled.

That American slang expression “handle” is a good one. In some parts of the country they’ll ask you, “What’s your handle?” if they want to know your name. That says a lot. A name is a way to control another person, to handle him. As the baby squeezes out of the womb into the world of social realities, he’s assigned all kinds of handles: “boy,” “John,” “American,” “white,” “Presbyterian,” “middle class,” “midwesterner,” “middletowner.” Before he even knows what hit him, he’s spinning in the social whirl. And by the time he’s old enough to do something about it, old enough to take control of his life, “John” is too bewildered by his designated names, and by the superficial qualities they represent, to be able to sense his deeper, personal qualities.

Psychologist Rollo May quotes one of his patients as saying, “I’m just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me.” In a well- known survey of the 1950’s, a distraught American housewife made this disclosure:

I’ve tried everything women are supposed to do- hobbies, gardening, pickling, canning, being very social with my neighbors, joining committees, running PTA teas. I can do it all, and I like it, but it doesn’t leave you time to think about-any feeling of who you are. There’s no problem you can even put a name to. But I’m desperate. Who am I?

“There’s no problem you can even put a name to,” the lady laments. But names are her problem. She’s been assigned too many names, none of them getting to the heart of her personal identity. Today’s foremost scholar of the Bhagavad-gita, HisDivine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, suggests a cure for the problem of names:

American, or Indian, or German, or Englishman; cat or dog, or bee or bat, man or wife: all of these are designations. In spiritual consciousness we become free from all such designations.

Many people have fought against the false limitations imposed on them by superficial designations, many have tried to become free. In the 1960s Theodore Roszak wrote, “The bohemian fringe of our youth culture… is grounded in an intensive examination of the self, of the buried wealth of personal consciousness.” Today the beat goes on in a more respectable way. In a September 13, 1976, Newsweek articleon genealogy (“perhaps the fastest-growing hobby in America”), the writers noted,

Although genealogy’s uses range from investigating possible hereditary causes of cancer to settling estate disputes, the single most compelling reason for its new popularity comes down to the question “Who am I?”

And the problem of identity is deeply enmeshed in one of the longest standing, most divisive issues in American culture- the racial problem. The names “black” and “white” have stirred destructive emotions since the 1600s. In his autobiographical novel of 1937, Black Boy, Richard Wright told of his struggle to get free from designations:

The white South said it knew “niggers,” and I was what the white South called a “nigger.”
Well, the white South had never known me—never known what I thought, what I felt… The pressure of Southern living kept me from being the kind of person that I might have been. I had been what my surroundings had demanded, what my family—conforming to the dictates of the whites above them—had expected of me, and what the whites had said that I must be.

Having decided “that the South could recognize but part of a man,” Wright moved north to Chicago in his search for freedom. Some people move north, some take drugs, some hire genealogists or psychologists. They want to leave, as Arjuna did, the artificial conflicts brought upon them by designations assigned to them by others.

How superficial those conflicts are! Because others have assigned me certain names, or because circumstances have put me in a certain position, I’m forced into conflicts I can’t avoid-simply because of the social commitments my name implies. If I’m a Hatfield, then I must be against the McCoys. If I’m a fifth-century-B.C. Athenian, then I must fight against the Spartans. If today I’m a Northern Irish Catholic, then I must fight the Protestants. Owners vs. Workers. Black vs. White. Men vs. Women. Town vs. Gown. “Anybody over thirty can’t be trusted.” This is very frustrating for me because I’m not really fighting for my rights, or perhaps not even for anything I believe in if given a chance to think about it. I’m defending something superficial, which somebody else most likely assigned to me without my asking for it.

To be sure, we can change some of our designations. Age, of course, changes anyway, of its own accord. Then, I can change my educational status, my occupation, my social class, or perhaps my given name, if I’m determined. And some people in extreme circumstances even decide to change their sex (the 1975 Obstetrics and Gynecology Annual reports that “it is apparent that several thousand transsexuals of both sexes live in the U.S. today”). Or, in protest, like many draft evaders during the Vietnam War, I could emigrate to Canada or Sweden and change my citizenship. On the other hand, as a last resort, I might try to shed all my names, escape from all my qualities, to become “one with the void,” as some Buddhists do.

But these reactions to discontent are probably as meaningless as the conflicts that caused the discontent. Without a look deeper within, a mere shuffling around of names or superficial qualities isn’t going to help. As Lord Krishna told Arjuna, “of the nonexistent there is no endurance, and of the existent there is no cessation.” In other words, things that change aren’t real, and things that are real don’t change. Changing names isn’t going to free us from the tyranny of names.

That could leave us in a pretty desperate place, were it not for a simple feeling that we’ve all had. It comes out in your life in a natural way, because it’s a natural thing to feel. It’s almost like changing names, but it isn’t really, because it’s just a matter of discovering the identity you already have but just aren’t aware of. It’s a matter of finding your permanent name.

With proper direction, this feeling of permanent identity, or permanent consciousness, can lead to great things. And the first step is very simple. We ask, “What is the identity that I have throughout life, that I can’t change even by the most drastic measures?” Let’s not think of changing. Let’s think of that which we cannot change. Now, there may be many answers to this question. But it seems the most meaningful answer for us right now would be something like this: “I am a human being.” Yes, “human being” is a name. But at least for this lifetime it’s a permanent name. With this understanding, we jump the first hurdle—the most difficult hurdle—on the path of liberation from the tyranny of names.

An Implement of Destruction

Next come the smelting plants, where the ores are broken loose and cooked down. Now we’re talking big industry—huge factories, more hellish work. And we’re getting into large-scale pollution.

From the smelting plants we go to the factory where the parts of the tractor are stamped out. Then another factory, where the tractor is put together. Still more hellish working conditions, still more pollution.

Now the tractor is finally assembled and sitting in the parking lot—without tires. Where do we get the materials for the tires? People used to go to tropical countries and pay workers a few cents to cut rubber trees and bleed them for latex. These days we have steel-belted radials, made from synthetics derived from petroleum.

Speaking of petroleum, now that we have our tractor sitting on its tires in the parking lot, what does it run on? You can’t put grass and oats in that tank. You need petroleum, which you might have to fight for. To prove it’s yours, you may have to send troops to the Middle East to kill men, women, and children. You might have to sacrifice your son or even your daughter. And if you win, when the man with the Exxon Valdez comes to ship your oil across the ocean he may spill half of it into the sea.

The oil that’s left goes to the refinery. If you’ve ever driven through a refinery town, you know the air smells like a skunk, and the water is so bad that even a skunk would think twice before drinking it.

But now our farmer has his tractor, his steel-belted radials, and his petrol. He fires up the engine and thinks, “With this tractor I can do the work of fifty oxen.” He looks at his oxen and says, “I don’t need you anymore. I’ve got my tractor. I’ve got my petroleum. You can go to the slaughterhouse.” When you start killing bulls, you’re destined to receive very negative karmic reactions.

Some of the karmic reaction begins right away. For a start, now you’ve got hapless people working in slaughterhouses, in jobs the U.S. government calls more dangerous and demoralizing than those in factories and mines.

But Mr. Agribusiness doesn’t think about that. He thinks, “I don’t have to feed those oxen anymore. That profit goes into my pocket.” At the cost of their lives.

Then he looks at his teamsters, who used to work those oxen—people who worked in the mode of goodness in the fields, growing grains and vegetables. He says, “I’ve already killed my oxen. I’ve got my tractor—I’ve got no work for you. You’re unemployed. Why don’t you go work in the factory and make more machines? Or go on welfare.”

Then he takes the tractor out to plow his field. Its heavy tires compact the earth, so the roots of his hybrid plants have trouble growing. He no longer has manure to nourish the soil, so he pours on commercial fertilizer, made with huge inputs of natural gas. Because the crops eventually deplete the organic things in the soil that hold moisture, his soil easily washes away into the stream. The weak soil that’s left grows weak plants—easy prey for weeds, bugs, and disease. So the farmer brings out his arsenal of pesticides and herbicides. These also wash downstream.

So that’s the modern tractor. Does it fit with the values that groups like the Greens want to promote? Not at all. Instead, the tractor plows up the environment, spreads centralization and exploitation, and crushes spiritual life.

What’s the alternative? When a cow gives birth, about half the time the calf is a bull. These bulls are Krishna’s tractors, produced in the “factory” of the mother’s womb. This factory doesn’t pollute or create hellish working conditions. And it operates by the laws of nature, which Krishna has arranged.

Krishna’s tractor can grow its own fuel—oats and grasses. And with this tractor, even the wastes are useful. Cow manure can be processed to yield methane, a clean-burning fuel. The residue can go into the ground as a first-class fertilizer and soil-builder. No need for by-products from the slaughterhouse to build organic content.

What about working conditions? The relationship between the farmer and the oxen is based on love and trust. When the oxen see the farmer, they expect to be patted and stroked under the neck. In return they like to work, and they work well with an experienced farmer. It’s the most satisfying kind of labor anyone could ask for.

When we use Krishna’s tractor there’s no pollution. And no violence. The farmer works side by side with the bull to grow the best natural foods. This kind of work—inspired by Krishna consciousness—gives the right ground to stand on for any group that wants a greener world.

Mother Mild

Westerners see India’s reverence for the cow as superstition, but for those who appreciate her gifts, the sacred cow is worthy of her name.

Holy cow! We have all heard that expletive enough times, but what on earth is holy about the cow? I remember some years ago my mother was much maligning India for the “primitive and superstitious” practice of cow worship. To a city boy whose only contact with cows was the Sunday dinner, her criticism seemed quite sensible.

In Vedic religion there is in fact a ceremony—go- puja—extant for thousands of years, in which the cow is worshiped. But just how primitive is it? . Is the cow some kind of symbolic god?

For the Indian villager with his agrarian life, the conservation of natural resources is an integral part of daily existence. He is expert in using nature’s gifts to manufacture all his requirements, from his mud hut to his homespun clothes. And protecting cows has always been the most important feature of the village conservation program; every homestead has at least one cow.

The cow and bull are indispensable in rural India, where about eighty percent of the population lives. The cow, eating only grass, happily supplies milk, which provides virtually all of the nutrients our bodies need. From milk we get cheese, curd, butter, ghee (clarified butter), whey, cream, yogurt, and an endless variety of milk-based preparations well known to experts in traditional Indian cookery. Because the cow supplies milk, she is accepted in the Vedas as our mother.

In India it is well known that cow dung has antiseptic properties, and in any Indian village one will see cow-dung patties drying in the sun to provide an excellent fuel for cooking fires. The urine of the cow is prescribed as a medicine for the liver by the Ayur-veda, the Vedic scripture on the science of healing.

The bull is also an invaluable asset to the small farmer. The strong bull enjoys working all day pulling a plow through the fields. How quaint, you may say, but not very efficient or practical these days. Well, the use of the bull may be slower than machinery, but it does not compact the soil and reduce its productivity as does heavy modern machinery. There are other problems with machinery in India, such as its inability to cope with seasonal changes and monsoons. (What to speak of the problems of finding spare parts or a mechanic.) Because the bull provides for food. he is considered our father.

In Vedic society it was recognized that a symbiotic relationship exists between man and cow. The cow produces far more milk than her calf requires. If the calf is allowed unrestricted access to the udder, mastitis will develop, which could lead to the cow’s death. When the cow is done calving, she will peacefully continue to produce milk. Of course, if she’s not milked, she will feel pain.

People object now about the exploitation of cows in dairies that are more like factories. The calves are taken from their mothers at birth, and the cows are slaughtered when past milking age. This is not the Vedic system, which demands that the cow be as well looked after as most people today look after their dogs. But are there any practical examples of the Vedic system in operation, where the cow is not grossly exploited and made to suffer in exchange for her milk and flesh?

Of course, rural India is one good place to look. Another example is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), among whose principles is cow protection. Indeed, in the Bhagavad-gita cow protection is given the status of a religious principle. All ISKCON farms are dedicated to this important principle, and the results can be seen. The cows are happy and peaceful and produce abundant, creamy milk. On ISKCON farms (there are fifty worldwide), the cows and bulls capture many prizes at local shows.

One of the main purposes of ISKCON is to establish self- sufficient farming communities. The farming techniques employed are traditional and organic and as far as possible avoid the use of modern machinery. Men and animals work harmoniously together to glean just enough for survival, forgoing machines designed to produce more for profit-making. The Vedic tenet of ahimsa, or nonviolence toward all living entities, is carefully observed. Thus, of course, animal slaughter of any kind is avoided, and even a plant’s life is taken only to provide subsistence. If items cannot be indigenously produced and need to be bought, excess milk can be sold to provide the necessary money. Otherwise, the milk is converted into long-lasting ghee for future use or barter.

The cow is therefore the basis of the Vedic economy and is accorded the highest possible regard. On the ISKCON Hertfordshire farm. the grounds of the United Kingdom’s main temple of Krishna, ten cows are looked after by Dushyanta dasa and three or four other groundsmen.

“A man can easily maintain himself and his family with an acre or two and a cow,” says Dushyanta. “This may sound idealistic, but consider the immense amount of land now given over to livestock for commercial farming. To produce one kilo of beef protein requires twenty kilos of vegetable protein as feed. We graze our cows, and each one needs only one acre. An acre of land can produce three hundred pounds of vegetable protein or twenty pounds of beef in an equal amount of time. Even day our cows each give an average of forty to fifty pints of milk. To kill these cows for food would not make economic sense.”

Srila Prabhupada was appalled by the slaughter of thousands of cows every day in the West. To him it just did not make sense. Such a useful creature is being killed for her flesh. It is like taking an expensive car and demolishing it for its scrap value. We value our machines, but can any machine produce milk from a little grass?

Srila Prabhupada writes, “While living. the cows give service by giving milk, and even after death they give service by making available their skin. hooves, and horns, which may be used in so many ways. Nonetheless, the present human society is so ungrateful that they needlessly kill these innocent cows.”

The Vedic literature tells how Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, takes the role of a cowherd boy for His pastimes. In fact, one of Krishna’s names is Govinda, meaning “one who gives pleasure to the cows.” Five thousand years ago, Krishna appeared as the son of the leader of a cowherd community. At that time a man was wealthy not if he had a pile of paper money but according to the number of cows and the amount of land he possessed. Krishna’s community had hundreds of thousands of cows. Thus the members of the community are described as having been very rich. They paid tax to the king with ghee, cheese, and whole milk and would also barter these products for cloth and other items in the market.

The cow also appears in religious symbolism in the Vedic literature. Religion is symbolized by the form of a bull, known as Dharma. In one well-known Vedic history. Dharma was attacked by Kali, the personification of the bad qualities of this age. Kali had broken three of Dharma’s legs (symbolizing cleanliness, austerity, and mercy) when the king arrived on the scene. He was immediately ready to kill Kali, who begged for his life. The king allowed Kali to live in certain places only, one of them being wherever animal slaughter was taking place.

ISKCON farms are developing in most countries, and they invite anyone to visit and see the Vedic economic system in practice. “Simple living and high thinking” is the underlying principle of ISKCON farm life. A respect for all living entities as part of God forms the basis for a life very much in harmony with nature. And for the cow, there will always be a special regard, thanks to her free and bountiful gifts.

Ranganiketan: A House of Colors Open to the World

Manipuri dancers inspire audiences with a glimpse of Manipur’s Vaishnava culture.

During the early 1970’s Srila Prabhupada expressed to Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami that the Manipuri traditions of music and dance, such as rasa-lila and sankirtana, are so infused with the Vaishnava culture that they are cultural representations of Krishna consciousness. If properly presented, he said, these cultural expressions could be powerful and inspirational. Taking heed of Prabhupada’s words, Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami formed Ranganiketan in 1987.

“Ranganiketan,” which means House of Colors, began its first international tour in 1990, with engagements in Europe and North America. Since then the troupe has put on nearly 400 performances for more than 250,000 people on four continents. It has appeared at the University of California (Berkeley), at EPCOT Center (Walt Disney World), and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Ranganiketan is the most extensively booked performing arts company of its kind from India.

The troupe gives special emphasis to educational programs. More than half of Ranganiketan’s performances take place before young audiences. Carefully created instructional materials prepare students for the performance, and lectures and demonstrations help them further understand what they’ve seen.

The cultural activities of Ranganiketan don’t stop at the stage. Troupe members are also adept in various offstage arts, especially the creation of Manipuri prasadam, the traditional cuisine, which has delighted people wherever the troupe goes.

Ranganiketan performances give samples of the music, dance, and martial arts of northeastern India. Thang-ta is a weapons- oriented form of martial arts that dates from the time of the Mahabharata. Both men and women learn these arts from an early age. With precision and strength, Ranganiketan artists demonstrate the various forms of Thang-ta, using swords, shields, scimitars, and occasionally their bare hands.

The acrobatic drum dances are powerful demonstrations of sankirtana that blend complex beats with the devotional mood of Narottama Dasa Thakura. Performed with the pung (Manipuri mridanga), the drum dances serve as an auspicious invocation before the performance of the rasa-lila.

The classical rasa-lila is the most important of the various types of Manipuri devotional dance. It expresses the quintessence of Vaishnava culture and philosophy—the yearning of the individual soul to surrender to the supreme soul, Lord Sri Krishna. Through that surrender, the soul attains transcendent happiness and the highest fulfillment of spiritual desire. In Manipur, rasa-lila performances can feature 108 dancers and last up to twelve hours. On tour, of course, the dances are shorter and the dancers fewer, but they give an authentic taste.

Search For an Art of Transcendence

From the museums of New York City to the Latin Quarter of Paris, a young man pursues the ultimate in creative expression.

I came of age in the mid ‘60s, at a time when progressives and liberals held sway in American society and the mood was full throttle into the bright future of technology and the unlimited creative potential of man. Odd- kid-out in most social activities (I attended expensive schools on scholarships, which put me in a socially awkward position), I ended up spending weekends and after-school hours wandering through New York City’s cavernous museums, filled with stone and canvas monuments to the Creative Animal. In one afternoon I could journey on foot from prehistoric cave paintings to Renaissance pietas, and from there to modern art and the latest in pop, op, and the psychedelic rest.

Of course, I visited not only the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art, but also the Museum of Natural History. There I was struck by the apparent parallel between the evolution of art and the evolution of man. First came the cavemen, with their cave paintings—rough, simplistic products of an obviously lower order of intelligence. Then, as man began wearing clothes, shaping tools, and tilling the earth, he produced the crude religious paintings and iconography of early civilization. Finally, as man grew more civilized, art grew more sophisticated, until Homo sapien was producing an artistic legacy as complex and unfathomable as his own neurological organs.

But this apparent parallel evolution ofart and man was too pat; it left an empty feeling in my stomach. Though my own culture accepted such a parallel, some part of me disagreed with the premise that art viewed chronologically was synonymous with art viewed progressively. The free-floating Calder mobiles appealed to my sense of aesthetics, but did that place them somehow above the simpler works relegated to sections marked “Tribal Talismans”? The sensual curves of a Moore sculpture attracted my adolescent mind, but were they “better” than the three-thousand-year- old works designated “Hindu Deities”? The open- ended canvases of Jasper Johns made me think about how his work affected me, but did I feel any less affected by the delicate miniature encrusted with gold and labeled “Krishna: Indian Forest God”?

These exhibits were consistently arranged so as to suggest that objects of art were no more than cultural artifacts. The arrangement was no doubt the work of anthropologists, art historians, sociologists, and others, who had a vested interest in making culture central, who addressed themselves, it seems, to people unwilling to bring themselves to consider anything that might transcend human experience.

Yet despite my intimations of a higher criterion than cultural relativity for evaluating art, when I met devotees of Lord Krishna for the first time, in 1969, I still believed that art could change the world without recourse to transcendent realities. Universities’ in Europe and the United States abounded with such courses as “Existentialism and Modern Art,” “Physics for Poets,” “Social Trends in Art History,” “Picasso and the Collective Unconscious,” “Music as a Force for Change.” What these courses all had in common was, first, an insistence on the interrelationship of the arts and, second, the idea that art should be about a personal “inner vision” that judiciously avoids other- worldliness. Like the perfectly ordered historical art exhibits I had known during my high-school days, the university catalogs also treated art as one of the Humanities, as a subject that deals only with human meanings. Art, they too were saying, can be understood only within the context of culture.

The devotees, however, lived with an art that went beyond such notions. In those early days of the Krishna consciousness movement in France, readings from the Bhagavad-gita and group chanting of Hare Krishna took place on Sundays in the Latin Quarter, at a gray two-story hangout for students, artists, poets, and musicians. Perched precariously on a folding chair, in the corner of a room that sat about thirty, was a three-foot-high color poster of Gopala (Krishna), the Supreme Lord and the speaker of the Gita. The name Gopala means “cowherd boy,” and in the picture Gopala was sitting gracefully, with His arm around a calf, looking off into the distance.

“Who’s that in the picture?” I asked a devotee who stood peeling apples by the door.

“That’s Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”

“And the idealized setting in the background—that’s supposed to be heaven?”

“No, not heaven, but the spiritual world—the really ideal setting, where everything is eternally full of knowledge and bliss.”

I watched the devotees meticulously arrange the apple sections on a brass tray, offer the tray before the poster of Gopala, bow down, and then dance and sing before Him. After a few moments the ceremony stopped, and a young man in robes and a shaved head began reading from the Bhagavad-gita in French. “Krishna’s nature,” he explained after one verse, “is spiritual, God is not limited by material elements, as we are. His body is not subject to laws of decay and death. And since He is absolute. He remains spiritual in all His manifestations. His appearance in wood or stone or paint transforms the material medium into His own spiritual substance. We should not think that a Deity or painting of Krishna is an idol. It is Krishna Himself, graciously appearing in a form visible to us, to help us remember Him.”

Unexpectedly, here was a challenge to my long-held belief in the cultural relativity of art. Extrapolating freely, I concluded that the Bhagavad-gita had this to say about art: Art can contain more than human elements; under certain conditions a work of art can serve as a vehicle for higher, transcendental forces, whose impact on the viewer or hearer (in the case of music, drama, or poetry) doesn’t depend on intellectual grasp or cultural relevance. The mere act of seeing or hearing spiritual art produces a spiritually uplifting effect. Though one’s intellectual awareness of the image or sound—one’s sense of its meaning or purpose—enhances the effect, such awareness is not prerequisite. Spiritual art is like fire: potent, able to act on anyone who comes near it.

I began spending evenings with some of the devotees. The small room they shared was filled with posters, photos, and drawings of all sizes and shapes. There were depictions of Krishna with His cowherd boyfriends, Krishna in His various incarnations, sages and saints from the scriptural histories. None of it struck me as very developed artistry. The features were often naive, the composition unimaginative, the proportions out of whack. But the greatest travesty, in my eyes, was the lack of a challenge to the viewer. So little in any of these pictures left anything at all to the onlooker’s interpretive skills. It was pure representational art. The spectator did not participate at all; he was a passive watcher. There was Krishna tending His cows in His village, Vrindavana, and there were the trees and flowers, all neatly dressed, best blossoms forward. It was clear that the artist had done his job quite well by painting exactly what he had seen—or rather exactly what he had read in the scriptures the devotees were always quoting. The artist had painted, and now the observer had only to gaze.

But to the devotees, those pictures were windows on the spiritual world. Each morning they would sit for an hour or more, concentrating on them as they chanted Hare Krishna on their beads. It became clear that the artists’ identities were of little importance to the devotees who sat entranced before these paintings. They had been done “right” (according to scripture), and that was all that mattered.

Many months later Srila Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual guide of the Krishna consciousness movement, visited Paris. By that time I had myself become a devotee of Krishna, and Srila Prabhupada’s visit seemed a good opportunity to clear up some of my lingering questions about the role of art in spiritual life. I waited until I could meet with him in his quarters, and then I dove right in.

“What is the function of art in spiritual life, Srila Prabhupada?” He looked up and studied my face for what seemed a long time.

“It is to put things in their proper place for best utility,” he said.

I didn’t understand what he meant,butrather than ask the same question again, I said, “Some artists might disagree with you. Sometimes it is considered art to take an object out of its proper place and give it a life of its own. Some artists argue that a work of art is a reality in itself, that it doesn’t depend for its ‘being’ on anything or anyone else. They say that art is most beautiful when accepted as a self-sufficient reality.”

“Beauty and art are different,” he corrected. “Beauty is something that satisfies my eyes. Your eyes may be satisfied by something, my eyes by something else. According to your idea of beauty, my beauty may be unacceptable. Beauty is a kind of sense gratification.”

“Yet the object of our vision may be beautiful, even if we can’t appreciate it.”

“No. If I like it, then it is beautiful. If I don’t, then it isn’t. There is no such thing as a standard of beauty. Just like nowadays artists make ‘beautiful’ paintings”—he waved an imaginary paintbrush wildly in the air above his head and laughed. ‘I don’t like it, but someone else may say it is very beautiful. So beauty and art are different. Art means arranging things for the highest utility. Beauty may satisfy but not have any higher utility. A picture, a poem—anything—is art when it serves the very best utility.”

Utility was obviously the crux of his definition. “If someone’s work fulfills that qualification of highest utility, is he an artist?”

“Yes. An artist isone who knows the standard of best utility.”

I opened Webster’s. “One definition the dictionary gives for artist is ‘one specifically skilled in the practice of a manual art or occupation, as cooking.’ If we apply that definition to spiritual life, a sincere laborer working for Krishna—a carpenter or a cook—is actually an artist.”

“Oh, yes, anyone who performs his work for the satisfaction of Krishna, who knows His relationship with Krishna, is a true artist.”

That was the moment when I at last understood his use of the word utility. He was defining art as any work that brings the performer, as well as all who come in contact with the work, away from the cycle of birth and death and closer to God. In other words, true art is yoga. By this definition of art as yoga, Srila Prabhupada was not denying the need, in painting, for rules of composition or balance in color and design. Rather, he was expanding the meaning of art beyond the traditional forms of painting, sculpture, music, drama, poetry, and so on to include every field of human endeavor—a notion described in Bhagavad-gita (2.50):

A man engaged in devotional service rids himself of both good and bad actions even in this life. Therefore, strive for yoga, which is the art of all work.

In the simple acts of devotion—the offering of foods to the Lord, the humble recitation of His holy names, the striving for a saintly life—one can also perceive God. The same inspiration is communicated by the art of work as by a work of art. In effect, Krishna in the Gita exhorts all members of society to become artists by performing their work as an offering of love to Him.

“In other words,” I asked, “would we say that anyone who works on behalf of Krishna, according to Krishna’s direction, is an artist?”

“Yes. A devotee knows the standard of utility. He knows how to put things in their proper place to inspire love for Krishna in himself and others.

Srila Prabhupada stopped speaking, and a thoughtful silence filled the room. I began thinking back to my first days in the movement, when I had met a young Scottish devotee named Digvijaya. No one knew how to “put things in their proper place” better than Digvijaya. He was the cook in the old London temple. A simple country boy with a knack for detail, Digvijaya cooked liked nobody’s business and kept an immaculate kitchen that boasted rows of pots sparkling from the hours of patient scrubbing he had put into them. Attracted by his fastidious habits and feats of cookery, I would sometimes go down to the basement work area and help him prepare an offering for the Deities.

“You like to work for Krishna in the kitchen, don’t you?” I rather clumsily asked him one evening. Digvijaya looked a little flustered and went on with his cooking. Finally he looked up and said, “Actually, I don’t consider myself advanced enough spiritually to serve Krishna directly. I’m happy just cooking for His pure devotee, Srila Prabhupada. And if he offers the preparations to Krishna on my behalf, I know they will be accepted.”

This was a young man whose culinary skills could hold their own with many professionals’, yet he was obviously humble about his work. During our talk he had revealed to me the secret of spiritual cooking: don’t speculate. “The best recipes have been around for thousands of years,” he said. “What Krishna likes has already been tried and tested, and then recorded in the scriptures. A spiritual chef,” he had concluded, “is one who learns how to make a dish just as Krishna has always liked it, since time immemorial.”

Now, two years later, Srila Prabhupada was confirming the same principle as the essence of spiritual art. Don’t speculate. Your work is meant to be an offering of love for Krishna, not a product of artistic ego. So let Krishna guide your efforts.

“Real art, then,” I said, “means simply to do something for Krishna’s pleasure?”

“Yes,” Srila Prabhupada replied. “That is also the definition of love: to do something for the pleasure of the beloved.”

“But what about artists as a class of people? What about art as a specific field of creative endeavor—art in the classical sense—painting, sculpture, music? Does spontaneity play no part in Vaishnava [devotional] art? And how do the artists derive inspiration if everything is already laid out in the scriptures?”

“All these questions will be answered when you visit the artists who paint for my books.”

Many months later I had that opportunity. At the devotee artist studios (then in Los Angeles), much was like what I had seen in dozens of other studios: paintbrushes, canvases, some reference books. But there were new elements as well. Music played constantly in the background—devotional songs that set a mood for the work at hand. Sometimes two or even three artists at a time worked to complete a painting, each contributing his or her best effort, either in background design, facial details, jewelry, architecture, or whatever. The artists, in their discussions, constantly referred to one or another Vedic scripture. Clearly they had studied their subjects well, and they drew details for the work from the ancient texts.

I asked one young man where he had received his training. He had graduated from a well-known art school, he said, and after becoming a devotee he had gone to India. What was an artist’s training like in India? “Oh, very intense,” he said. “An artist in the devotional tradition never attempts a sculpture or painting of Krishna unless his teacher has sanctioned both the work and his readiness to execute it. The forms of Krishna are divine; when depicted by one who is not in the proper devotional mood, they are offensive.”

I noticed a young woman prepare her brushes by washing them in a sink down the hall. There was a bathroom closer by, but, she explained, through the agency of these brushes Krishna would appear on canvas, and so she preferred not to wash them in the bathroom. Before applying the first strokes to her canvas, she folded her hands and offered Sanskrit prayers before a picture of her spiritual master.

The artists were trained technicians intheir craft. In the sculpture workshop a heavyset man with a clean-shaven head applied filler to a bust of Old Age, a character in a diorama depicting birth, death, and rebirth. He looked at the bust, and, for my benefit, broke down the visual impression into colors, contrasts, perspectives, relationships, planes, and other aspects that had escaped my untrained eyes.

Yet beyond the technical prowess, these artists were seeing Krishna, not only in the immediate form of the sculpture or painting but also in the thousand and one details of life’s every moment that escape the notice of materialistic men. These artists knew the true value of their resources. The very tools of their trade acted as an inspiration for their work. Krishna was in the earth and clay, in the water and paints. He was the light of the sun that illuminated their studios. Nothing in their work was separate from Him, and by His presence the work itself became transformed into an act of meditation and prayer:

I asked several of the artists what they felt was the most important part of their work. Though one or two spoke of abstract concepts—like detachment from the finished product—the majority agreed that the most important part of their work was a strong daily program of morning sadhana, the devotional and meditative practices that begin around 4:30 a.m. and end by 8:30 in every temple of the Krishna consciousness movement. Without that regularity of spiritual discipline, they all agreed, they could never put brush to canvas or chisel to stone.

Over the course of the last few years, my deepening appreciation for spiritual art has cast in a different light the culturally based ideas of art that I grew up with. Instead of a progressive development in the arts, the contents of our museums seem to evince man’s increasing estrangement from his Spiritual roots. The further we divorce ourselves from the notion of a higher being and a life beyond matter, the more abstract and cerebral and sterile our artistry grows. And what usually passes as spiritual is in fact merely a negation of what we take to be material: form, personality, recognizable elements of creation. As a result, the spiritual reality—a world filled with spiritual variety, spiritual form and personality—remains hidden from our view.That spiritual reality, says theBhagavad-gita, is revealed in proportion to one’s renunciation of such concepts as “I am the creator” and “I am the artist” and one’s acceptance of one’s role as a servant of God.

No matter how innovative, lyrically spontaneous, or technically adept, the artist with no spiritual training or vision can never transcend in his work the limitations placed upon him by his alienation from God. Because such an artist is competing with God, he can never become a pure medium for the expression of God’s infinite creativity.

On the other hand, even an untrained devotee artist can become such a medium. This is true because the transcendental quality of a work of art is a result not of technical skill but of the artist’s purity of devotion, his desire to glorify God through his work. Properly guided, even an unskilled devotee artist can bring out the Supreme Spirit for all to see, as exemplified by the following anecdote told to me by one of the artists in Los Angeles.

Once, while traveling by plane, Srila Prabhupada chanted Hare Krishna around his beads with a drawing of Krishna pinned to the back of the seat in front of Him. This is a common practice among devotees who travel, but it was striking that Srila Prabhupada had chosen this particular drawing to meditate upon. It was done in crayon—the straightforward, untutored work of a child. It had little aesthetically redeeming value. But to Srila Prabhupada it was finer than a Rembrandt, more meaningful than a Degas, more intriguing than a Picasso, because it was Krishna drawn by the loving (albeit naive) hand of His young devotee. In that simple sketch was abundant subject matter for Srila Prabhupada’s artistic contemplation: devotion, sincerity, earnest labor, and a six-year-old’s humble offering of love to God.