Q. A loved one just passed away after a long illness. What can I do to get myself back on track? I'm so lost. Please help.
In difficult times we should look to scripture for comfort and guidance, as seeing life through the eyes of scripture (sastra-caksusa) will help us like nothing else can. Indeed, the second chapter of Bhagavad-gita tells the entire story of life and death–death being described there as another change of garments for the soul. Through scriptural insight and philosophy, one can truly deal with death, and dealing with the problem of death is what life is about. If we neglect this problem, no other endeavor amounts to time well spent, as we will never find lasting happiness by working against the clock to acquire something in this short life. This is but a realistic outlook on life in this mortal plane where time will take everything from us all too soon.
What is time? "Time I am, destroyer of all the worlds," says Sri Krsna in Bhagavad-gita. There is, of course, more to his message than this. But this is the beginning. Once we have thoroughly grasped that this present life we are experiencing is one in which we are born to die, we can begin to know about eternity, where real life begins.
In order to live the carefree life we are seeking, we must cross over the influence of time. The Gita tells us that this can only be done by surrendering to the reality of our utter helplessness in the face of material nature, under whose jurisdiction we are living. From this recognition of our dire need comes the impetus to call for help–absolute help, for we are absolutely helpless. This call attracts the sympathy of Godhead, who is ever ready to respond to those who are meek and humble, thus our happy life beyond time is at hand. The positive experience of tangible spiritual life requires no rational validation. It leaves no doubt and fulfills the need of the heart as nothing else can. It is not unreasonable, but picks up where reason leaves off. Everything else pales in comparison.
Q. Supposedly there are hidden and coded messages within the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah. Do Hindu scriptures contain such hidden messages?
A. Hindu scriptures contain secrets that can only be accessed by those who apply their precepts. Love itself is the greatest secret. What is love and how does one love in the fullest sense? These are the real questions of life, and the answers to these questions can be found in Hindu scriptures as well as in other sacred texts.
Q. How can God be all good and at the same time let bad things happen to good people?
A. This is a question that all spiritual traditions have to deal with. In my opinion none of the answers offered by the various traditions fully satisfy the intellect. So here at the outset it may be worth asking whether or not intellectual satisfaction is required. Certainly it is to some extent, but can we expect the intellect to understand everything? The Bhagavad-gita says that although the intellect is higher than the mind and senses, it is in all respects inferior to the soul. Thus the soul and God–the Supreme soul–can only be known by revelation.
In reply to your inquiry, the
Hindu tradition teaches that God is not responsible for the evil in the world, nor is he responsible for the suffering of this world's inhabitants (jivas). The plight of the jivas is the result of their own actions, or karma. Karma is the manifestation of the principle of justice, which God honors lest he be guilty of capriciousness. However, mercy is above justice, thus God may show mercy and overrule justice at times, but in general the principle of karmic justice governs the material world.
One might argue that at the beginning of the creation there were no jivas and thus there was no karma. Therefore, when the jivas did manifest God must have made them unequal, for had they been equal there is no reason to believe that their acts would have been different resulting in different karma. In this argument, God is accused of being unequal and thus unjust, a position that would contradict statements in the Gita and other scriptures that proclaim God's neutrality in regards to happiness and distress in this world. In reply the sutras say that this argument is invalid because there is no beginning to the creation. Creation is a beginningless cycle, as is karma. One can think of it as one does the perplexing question as to which comes first, the seed or the tree.
Another way to understand this is in terms of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's philosophy of acintya-bhedabheda, which teaches that God and his energies (sakti) are simultaneously one and different. If God were one in all respects with the jivas, who are among his saktis, he would be responsible for their actions. However, according to Mahaprabhu, God is not one in all respects with the jivas–not absolutely so–because God is eternally one and different from his sakti.
To the extent that God and the jivas are one, God still cannot be blamed for the suffering in the world because to begin with, there is no one to blame God, since in this view only God alone exists.
Q. We sometimes hear that Krsna overrides karma for his devotees. Thus everything that happens to devotees is in some way Krsna's mercy rather than karmic justice. How much of this idea should we accept?
A. Bhagavad-gita states that Krsna is equal to all but that anyone who renders service to him receives his special attention. This does not violate Krsna's neutrality, as everyone is free to become his devotee. However, everything that happens to each and every devotee is not directly Krsna's doing. Krsna is aloof and absorbed in love with his most intimate devotees. Only when devotees advance and come under the influence of Krsna's internal energy (svarupa-sakti) does he settle permanently in their hearts and play an active role in their lives. He does so with a view to guide them to himself in terms of a particular sentiment of divine love. Before this stage of bhakti is attained, the devotee remains to some extent under karmic rule and should more readily attribute his or her material gains and losses to good and bad karma.
This karma, however, may very well be considered an abbreviated form of karma owing to the devotee's spiritual practice and the grace of Sri Guru. For example, Sri Jiva Goswami has written that bhakti first destroys one's karma that lies in waiting and has not yet manifest, while one's manifest karma is not destroyed until one reaches advanced stages of devotion. This does not mean that God is not involved in neophyte devotees' lives. He is. Otherwise, how could their unmanifest karma be destroyed?
Scripture supports this point by stating that a mere shadow of Krsna' name (namabhasa) can destroy one's karma. This namabhasa represents Krsna's partial influence in our lives, destroying karma that impedes us from loving him. However, when the pure name of Krsna (suddha-nama) manifests in our hearts, we come directly under the care of Krsna. At this stage
Krsna helps us develop our budding sentiment of love, and in doing this he personally maintains us, carrying what we lack and preserving what we have: yoga ksemam vahami aham.
Q. I am an initiated devotee of Krsna who finds inspiration in the lives and teachings of Christian saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Theresa of Avila. Is it okay for initiated devotees to seek inspiration in other religious traditions?
A. There is no harm in taking inspiration from other traditions. When we see good qualities, intensity of practice, and dedication in other traditions, we should be inspired by such examples to apply ourselves that much more within our own tradition. Our sadhana may differ from those of other spiritual traditions, but wherever and to the extent that we see the fruit of our sadhana appearing in others, regardless of their tradition, we bow our heads.
Having said that, it is important to note that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu teaches that the gopis are the best example of devotion. All initiated members of the Gaudiya tradition should endeavor to understand why they are so, for only then will they be able to truly understand what suddha-bhakti is in the fullest sense of the term. This, however, is not easy to do. Even Krsna himself struggled to understand it–thus his appearance in the world as Sri Caitanya.
Q. Regarding the stories of hell found in various scriptures, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura has written, "We have been warned somewhere in the book (Srimad-Bhagavatam) not to accept them as real facts, but as inventions to overawe the wicked and to improve the simple and ignorant." Where is this caution is given in Srimad-Bhagavatam?
A. A broad interpretation of the first two lines of the following verse could possibly apply:
paroksa-vada vedo 'yam balanam anusasanam
"Knowledge (veda/sastra) is given in a disguised form (paroksa-vada) to guide child-like (less intelligent) people." (SB. 11.3.44)
Although this verse more directly refers to the sections of scripture that speak of the fruit of material acquisition derived from adherence to a particular rule, it can be extended to refer to those sections of scripture that seek to inspire us to follow scriptural directives by the prospect of attaining something or the fear of punishment from not following them. In the early stages of devotion, these motives are present in the heart of the practitioner. Gradually they will be replaced, first with devotion born of a sense of duty and finally by love, the motiveless motive.
Scriptures like the Bhagavata are poetry, and thus they take a poetic license when explaining philosophy and theology. They seek to underscore important and universal truths. For example, the sections describing hell seek among other things to tell us that there are consequences for our actions–an important point to consider. When we read like this and put such truths in place in our lives, we can enter the world of all possibility.
Q. In Vaisnavism there is a prohibition against gambling. Could you clarify as to whether Vaisnavism would consider investment in stocks or other instruments of appreciation to be gambling?
The prohibition against gambling has to do with the fact that it fosters the mentality of wanting to get something for nothing. While honest labor is purifying, trying to beat the system is not. Generally speaking, investing would not be considered gambling even though, like gambling, there may be some risk involved. This is because in modern civilization investing is often the best use of one's financial resources and intelligence.
What is important is that devotees, other than those living as monastics such as sannyasis, brahmacaris, and vanaprasthas, should be employed in honest professions. To a certain extent honest labor and responsibility toward one's dependents purifies the money one earns, including that which comes from investment returns. Regardless, a householder should be a soul surrendered unto Krsna (saranagata) and use his or her disposable income for Vaisnava seva.
Q. I was touched by these poetic verses about virtue:
"Virtue yields heaven's honor and earth's wealth. What is there that is more fruitful for a man?
There is nothing more rewarding than virtue, Nor anything more ruinous than its neglect."
Can you comment on virtue?
A. Virtue is the influence of what the Bhagavad-gita refers to as sattva guna, or the mode of goodness. Physically speaking, sattva guna is matter's ability to be intelligible, a material manifestation's inherent ability to make itself known. Psychically speaking, sattva guna is clarity and purity of thought, thought that understands the value of virtue. Virtuous acts stem from the influence of sattva. Virtue is best because it leads to the clarity of thought that reveals the futility of "heavenly honor" and "earthly wealth." The pursuit these should be retired and in their stead one should pursue selfless, eternal life in love of God.
Q. My young child died in an accident and I am trying to understand this tragedy from the scriptural perspective. Can you help me?
A. I am very sorry to learn of your loss and can only imagine how painful it has been for you. What could possibly be dearer to a parent than his or her child, and why should any parent have to suffer the sudden loss of a young child in such a manner? The only answer I can give to this perplexing question is that God and material nature (karma) work in mysterious ways.
Perhaps you should stop tying to find a reason for this tragedy. Life itself is not very reasonable, neither scientifically speaking nor spiritually.
Life is mystical, and from the spiritual perspective life is about love, and love does not answer to reason. Try to grow in love by universalizing the object of your love. Universally speaking, your child represents an opportunity for you to sacrifice, as nurturing a child requires so much of oneself. Scripture tells us that it is through self-sacrifice that one finds fulfillment. It asks us to try to see the purpose of life in this light.
Bhagavad-gita proclaims that self-sacrifice brings one closer to reality because the Absolute is eternally situated in acts of sacrifice. Thus the fulfillment one feels in self-sacrifice has its origin in the Absolute, Sri Krsna. The message of scripture is that one should "give to live," and by doing this one will receive so much in return. Live this great lesson, "giving is receiving," and go on giving in whatever ways that you can. Through giving you will come closer to God, and through giving you will feel the presence of your child always.