Newsletter: A Future Project

Recently my dear friend and godbrother Ādi-kartā prabhu was visiting Hungary, and during a conversation he encouraged me to put Rūpa Gosvāmī’s Lalita-Mādhava and Vidagdha-Mādhava into book form. I was quite surprised at Ādi’s proposal as I had thought of doing the same a decade ago, and it has been in my mind ever since. Was this a sign from Kṛṣṇa?

In my literary efforts before becoming a devotee, I had written plays inspired by the likes of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. There were two or three cardboard boxes full of my beginner’s literary manuscripts in our family home, which I asked my mother to throw out when she moved to Toronto. But I was also aware that only a select few read plays. It’s a different undertaking than reading novels, for example. So when I first read Lalita-Mādhava and Vidagdha-Mādhava, I lamented that the treasure of these plays would probably reach a limited devotee audience at best. But, I thought, if I put these plays into a regular novel form, devotees would be much more inclined to read them and benefit from Rūpa Gosvāmī’s marvellous exposition of Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes.

To exemplify how these classic plays are often neglected, Caitanya-candrodaya-nāṭaka of Kavi-karṇapūra has, in almost 500 years, never been performed. And how many of my readers here have read it?

So Ādi-kartā prabhu’s spontaneous proposal was certainly a confirmation of my long-held conviction, and that conviction has now become stronger. However, I don’t see myself undertaking such a project any time soon. Were I writing at my regular part-time pace, which I am far from at present, the project would take the best part of two years. It’s not that the volume of work is so great, it’s the nuanced language with its multiple meanings, as well as the fine aesthetics of mellows expressed, that require careful study and fine discretion to properly represent. Time!

Anyway, right now I have a backlog of Kṛṣṇa in Vṛndāvana books to write after completing the current projects, Sādhana-sāra-dīpikā and Compendium Volume 2. Perhaps after I complete the Kṛṣṇa in Vṛndāvana adaptation of Chapter 20 (of the 10th Canto) I can consider this proposal. In the meantime, in my spare time, I shall continue to read these two plays, especially Lalita-Mādhava. They so much nourish my devotional sentiments and creatively inspire me in my writings. I invite all devotees to do the same!

Newsletter: Making Writing My Priority

Jaya Radha-Syama!

In a recent text exchange with Indradyumna Maharaja, he wrote, “I am ever grateful to Srila Prabhupada … and the association of godbrothers like yourself. Regarding your writing – if I may – I would say your writing is the most important of all your sevas. It’s what we leave behind. It stays and guides our followers and many others as well once we depart. And writing requires solitude and focus. ‘What is not well written is not well read.’  I hope you can arrange your time in that way. Your Nava-vraja-mahima is your magnum opus (and still requires a mass marketing scheme) but it is not your ‘swan song.’  Please somehow or other make writing your priority.  I will say in all humility that Nava-vraja-mahima is my constant companion and my life and soul.  Thank you for everything you do … thank you for who you are.  Your’s always, Indradyumna Swami.”

I replied, “Your message is an eye-opener and a wakeup call. Yes, I shouldn’t sacrifice my writing time. Right now I have my hands in 3 books, but I’m still GBC, guru, doing outreach, and getting old. It’s probably the latter that’s knocking me out the most. But I take to heart what you wrote and thank you very much for it. Amongst god-brothers you are the one encouraging me most for writing. I need the encouragement. It’s what keeps me going. Thank you for that. I’m trying to make appropriate changes to facilitate your advice.”

Indradyumna Maharaja’s letter brought to the fore my service priority – writing. The result of the efforts I invest into other projects may dwindle in time. It’s the sad reality. But books and their message are permanent. Srila Prabhupada’s movement has transformed greatly in the 40 years after his departure. But his books remain unchanged, and as they did 50 years ago, they continue to transform the lives of those who come in touch with them. I too must organise the last part of my life to do outreach preaching and to write. I see those two as my calling. It will be painful to let go of other services, but, c’est la vie. I know how productive I can be when I have quality time to write.

I remember while writing Volume 4 of Nava-vraja-mahima, I first included the text of Vilapa-kusumanjali as an appendix. Then I thought, “It would be so much better if there was a commentary to the text.” However I worried that if I did that, I would get distracted from the main composition, NVM. So I put the thought aside. But it kept haunting me and so one evening I vowed, “Give me one month to do Vilap, and then I will return to NVM.” And in less than one month I did the commentary to Vilapa-kusumanjali—250 pages. I feel that there are many other books that I could write, given the time to do so. It’s up to me to make the time and as inspiration to do so, I keep in mind Indradyumna Maharaja’s words “I hope you can arrange your time in that way,” and “Please somehow or other make writing your priority.”

Newsletter: Why Hear About Kṛṣṇa

Recently I was reading the introduction to Kṛṣṇa Book. Śrīla Prabhupāda gives such clear reasons why everyone should hear about Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes. Those are also the reasons I originally took it upon myself to write. And I thought that for this newsletter I would extract the essence of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s reasoning. It’s brilliant.

“Kṛṣṇa actually appears in order to demonstrate His Vṛndāvan pastimes and in this way attract the fortunate conditioned souls and invite them back home, back to Godhead….The subject matter of this book will gradually reveal all these activities…

“…There are three classes of men in this world. One class consists of liberated souls, another consists of those who are trying to be liberated, and the third consists of materialistic men. Whether one is liberated or is trying to be liberated, or is even grossly materialistic, the pastimes of Lord Kṛṣṇa are worth studying…It is essential for persons who are actually liberated to hear about the pastimes of Kṛṣṇa. That is the supreme relishable subject matter for one in the liberated state…Also, if persons who are trying to be liberated hear such narrations as the Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, then their path of liberation becomes very clear…

“…This kṛṣṇa-kathā will also be very much appealing to the most materialistic persons because Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes with the gopis (cowherd girls) are exactly like the loving affairs between young girls and boys within this material world….Therefore, when those who are after sex life in this material world hear about Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes with the gopīs, they will relish transcendental pleasure, although it appears to be materialistic. The advantage will be that they will gradually be elevated to the spiritual platform…

“…This Kṛṣṇa Book, which is filled with kṛṣṇa-kathā, will thus appeal equally to the liberated souls and to persons who are trying to be liberated, as well as to the gross, conditioned materialist…

“…But Mahārāja Parīkṣit also warned that persons who are simply engaged in killing animals and in killing themselves may not be very much attracted to kṛṣṇa-kathā….This means persons who are animal-eaters (even dog-eaters), for they are all engaged in killing animals in so many ways, such as hunting and opening slaughterhouses. Such persons cannot be interested in kṛṣṇa-kathā …

“…It is the order of Lord Caitanya that kṛṣṇa-kathā should be spread all over the world, because if the conditioned souls, suffering under the pangs of material existence, take to kṛṣṇa-kathā, then their path of liberation will be open and clear…The purpose of presenting this book is primarily to induce people to understand Kṛṣṇa or kṛṣṇa-kathā, because thereby they can become freed from material bondage…

“…Mahārāja Parīkṣit was especially intent on the subject matter because he was expecting death at any moment. Every one of us should be conscious of death at every moment…So before death takes place, we must be fully Kṛṣṇa conscious.”

Śrīla Prabhupāda kī jaya…

Newsletter: Please Read Books—For Your Own Good

From Srila Prabhupada’s teachings and Gaudiya history, it seems that there has always been a tension between two kinds of followers of Lord Caitanya’s mission—the preachers and the reclusive practitioners. These are known as the gosthy-anandi (GA) and bhajan-anandi (BA), respectively. The debate between the two centres around how they realise the confidential essence of Lord Caitanya’s teachings, Vraja-bhakti, and the failings that each sees in the other’s practice. GA see that BA neglect Lord Caitanya’s order to preach and that they take an exoteric approach to spontaneous devotion in practice, for which the vast majority of aspirants are ineligible.[1] Therefore such BA are rightly labelled sahajiyas. BA, on the other hand, argue that GA preaching of varnasrama and refuting evolution are material activities, and the GA practice of regulative devotional service leads them to Vaikuntha and not Vraja. Both these charges show a lack of understanding of how to preach and how to elevate neophyte devotees to the realm of spontaneity.

My purpose in writing the Krishna in Vrindavan series was to highlight to members of ISKCON that while preaching and regulated practice are the guidelines given us by our acaryas, they—our acaryas—also taught an esoteric approach to spontaneous service, which did not, as did the BA exoteric practice, conflict with the preaching mission and its resultant influx of neophyte devotees.[2] In this regard Srila Prabhupada emphasised that as devotees’ hearts become purified by service and practice—mainly nama-sankirtana—they will naturally remember Krishna, and by remembering Krishna devotees will awaken their desire to serve Him in the same mood as the Vraja-vasis. That is vraja-bhakti. But if devotees do not read Srila Prabhupada’s books, or books of other Vaisnavas, what will we remember? If devotees do not hear of Krishna’s pastimes, His sweetness, His devotees’ services, then how will we awaken a desire to serve Krishna in Vrndavan?

Following Srila Prabhupada’s order, I am trying to provide more reading material for devotees’ remembrance, and also trying to give the truths of siddhanta and rasa that substantiate the understanding of the transcendental nature of Krishna’s pastimes, associates, and their mutual shared love. However, if devotees do not take seriously the study of transcendental literature, if we only emphasise preaching as a means to perfection, then such devotees may well be confirming the BA false assessment of the path of the GA. Therefore I request devotees not to neglect reading Srila Prabhupda’s books and if they have spare time, read the books like those made available by Lal Publications. Books are not meant to sit on shelves, but are meant to be read and thus awaken our desire to serve Krishna in the way that the Vraja-vasis do. Thank you.

[1] Exoteric means external.

[2] Esoteric means internal.

Newsletter: Song Book

I have an admission to make. Although as a sannyasi I am controlled of mind, as a writer I can be distracted. It’s the difference between following rules and following inspiration. If you remember, I left Volume Two of Varnasrama Compendium to write Sadhana-sara-dipika. Now I am distracted from that by going back to the writing and editing of a longterm project, a song book, just so I can say “it’s done.” This book is not going into print for some years; it is an ongoing project dating back more than a decade, but I thought to share one work-in-progress in the form of a song from the book. Jaya Radha Syama.

Pratiyatu Sadhuna

Song 5

Hear now, O wondrous Syama, my petition at Your lotus feet! After reflecting upon it well, You may find that consenting to my proposal has a most agreeable outcome for both You and I.

Long ago You and Radha left the gopis, and later You abandoned Her as well. While You had reasons for behaving as You did, the gopis were perplexed, and upon Your return they questioned You.

“What kind of lover are You? Are You like a merchant? Are You munificent? Or are You completely indifferent? By Your paradoxical conduct we, who love You without condition, are perplexed.”

In ways that melted the gopis’ hearts, You spoke of an extraordinary love for them, a love that from prying eyes You keep secreted behind a deceptive veil of equivocal conduct and contradictory words. 

But Your honest admission, na paraye ’ham, still echoes through the groves of Vraja, raises high waves upon the Yamuna, makes flowers bloom with extraordinary fragrance and brings tears to my eyes. (1)

The gopis are single-minded in their love, but You have so many devotees with whom to reciprocate, how can You reward accordingly those who surrender unto You? You cannot! So na paraye ’ham!

Unable to fulfil Your promise, indebted to the vraja-devis, You who mystify everyone were mystified. Your only solution was dependent upon their good will, “Be satisfied with Your own glorious deeds!”

O Syama! I know that being unable to requite the gopis’ love still weighs heavily on You. Some things time cannot mend. But I have a solution to lessen Your burden and ease Your conscience. Please hear! 

The phrase tad vah pratiyatu sadhuna may mean “let a saintly devotee repay My debt to You.”(2) So some of Your devotees can become the gopis’ followers, and by serving the gopis they will repay Your debt!

Now, I am neither saintly, nor a devotee. But I am Your follower. If You make me a sadhu and transform me into a maidservant, then I shall dedicate myself eternally to repaying Your debt to the gopis.

Having tendered this proposal, what more can I say? My pen goes quiet, my heart thunders, my mind is aswirl. Sitting in my grove I cry to You, “This submission is advantageous to us both. Please hear me!”

Yours in Krishna’s service,
Sivarama Swami

1. The verse beginning with na paraye’ ham is in Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.32.22.
2. This is an explanation given by Sanatana Gosvami to the phrase in Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.32.22

Newsletter: Writers Block Grrrr

I am writing this newsletter instead of my book. Chapter 19 has been slow going for some reason, but this morning I hit a brick wall. It’s called writer’s block. I didn’t sleep well, rose early, and so after saying prayers and chanting rounds I was tired. It was obvious I wasn’t in top writing shape. I needed a little rest. But that’s not possible for me in the morning when the world around me is waking up. Anyway I tried, but it didn’t work. “OK! Get yourself together.” Back at the desk I tried re-reading the chapter to get the flow of the content, but that didn’t work. I couldn’t follow the train of thought. Yesterday it read as smooth as silk. Today it felt like a roller coaster. Moreover I got entangled in making little grammatical corrections that ended up taking a lot of time. And after all that time the corrections still didn’t sound right. I was bogged down, sinking in the quicksand. I really don’t know what getting stuck in quicksand is like, but I have heard about it. 

And my condition was like that—up to the neck, or more accurately, up to the fingertips. I just couldn’t move on. My concentration level was low, inspiration lower and divine intercession much needed. It came, by not coming. With my first books I could get quite desperate at this point. “Is my writing career over? Has Krsna disempowered me?” But after some years and a lot of experience, I learned that it’s par for the course. One just has to stop, close the computer and revert to spiritual diversions and wait for the mercy to flow. I remember when I was struggling with Suddha-bhakti-cintamani at Bhaktivedanta Asrama. I left my desk, grabbed my bead-bag and went on Giriraja parikrama. Next day I was fine. 

No doubt, tomorrow I will be fine. But, being as result oriented as I am, its hard to admit defeat. Grrrr! Besides, I am behind schedule. Nothing new there. But I gained some solace in writing this newsletter. Hammered it out in 20 minutes, and am feeling better for it. Maybe I should try going back to the chapter? No! Krishna is telling that’s not such a good idea. So we’ll try tomorrow. Please remember me in your prayers. This book writing has many challenges: spiritual, literary, and psychological. Sometimes it’s a lonely service. We all need some support. That’s it. You have been first hand witnesses to the consequences of writer’s block. Radha Syama.

Newsletter: What Inspires Me

Jaya Radha-Syama!

I would like to briefly share with readers my inspiration for writing. As Srila Prabhupada said “it’s not mechanical.” Inspiration is the foundational momentum, guidance, and determination that keeps an author going, no matter what. 

Although my first writing ventures were The Siksa Guru and The Bhaktivedanta Purports, I did not see in those books that writing would become such an integral part of my life. But somehow I gained inspiration for what I am now writing from my readings, from living in Vraja, and from serving Radha-Syama. More to the point, and to be more open, I became inspired by Radha-Syama, and They continue to be my inspiration. I’ll try to explain.

For the first few years that Their Lordships were installed, I didn’t dress Them regularly; indeed I was rarely involved in Their dressing. However, in time They drew me to Them like iron fillings to a magnet. And being in close proximity to Them for hours a day, the goal of serving them in a similar way eternally, in Vrindavan, manifest within me as a compelling reality. Let me cite Srila Prabhupada’s words as a way to clarify how this desire awakened:

“This development of conjugal love [as gopi or manjari] can be possible only with those who are already engaged in following the regulative principles of devotional service, specifically in the worship of Radha and Krsna in the temple. Such devotees gradually develop a spontaneous love for the Deity, and by hearing of the Lord’s exchange of loving affairs with the gopis, they gradually become attracted to these pastimes. After this spontaneous attraction becomes highly developed, the devotee is placed in either of the abovementioned categories.” (NOD 16) 

As I relished Radha-Syama’s blessings, I thought of how to share my personal growth and vision. I couldn’t bring everyone to the altar to dress Their Lordships. But I could facilitate devotees’ hearing about Their pastimes, forms, and qualities. Such hearing is actually the primary factor in awakening a desire for vraja-bhakti. For an attentive devotee, hearing, accompanied by nama-sankirtana, would indisputably have the effect of awakening natural attraction. And if devotees could also worship Radha-Krsna deities locally, such attraction would only be nourished further. 

Thus I began the Krsna In Vrindavan series, and then later Nava Vraja-mahima. I saw those books as my service to the Vaisnava community and as my glorification of Radha-Syama. Wherever in my books I write about Radhaand Krsna, I am writing about New Vraja-dhama’s Radharani and Syamasundara. They are the Radha and Krsna whom I know. To this very day, even when I am writing Sadhana-sara-dipika, it is They who are my inspiration, the goal of my sadhana, and the worshipable deities to whom I see every written page as a flower petal of a literary puspanjali. 

Thus, as I sit here in Mayapur looking at Their picture, I long for the time when I shall return to New Vraja-dhama and directly engage in Their service. Then I will get fresh inspiration. That’s how it works for me.

Yours in Krishna’s service,
Sivarama Swami

Newsletter: There Is Method in My Madness

December was a slow month for writing for two main reasons: the Prabhupada marathon, and the research and classification portion of the third and essential part of Sadhana-sara-dipika. I won’t elaborate on the former but will on the latter. In the school of hard knocks I learned that the train of thought in a book must be clearly formulated in a step-by-step progression, through the paragraphs and chapters. One can’t just sit down and write, be the subject poetic, like Nava-vraja-mahima, or philosophical, like this book. If an author does so, both he and his message quickly get lost in the unsystematic composition. In this instance—the third portion of Sadhana-sara-dipika—research meant that I had to scan the Brhad-bhagavatamrta,smaller works like Madhurya-kadambini, and the Bhaktivedanta Folio. From these sources I collected relevant passages that totalled seventy pages. Because most of these extracts are descriptive, I then summarised their essence into phrases and sentences. That was followed by a lengthy and exacting process of classifying summaries according to themes, sub-themes, and further subdivisions where necessary. 

The result is a codified version of the points to be written, which is then classified according to a proper sequence representing the progression of devotion to be offered to the reader. It is a challenge to stay on track and not digress into some details of devotion which, while very wonderful, are not always relevant to the topics at hand. Although this kind of correlation appears to be a mechanical exercise, it is the unfolding of the truths of bhakti. Because of the confidential nature of devotional service, scriptures do not always present these truths chronologically or systematically. Rather they are scattered throughout texts, challenging students to show their sincerity and determination by making the effort to collect these spiritual jewels. Authors can astutely string these truths in sequential order upon the thread of literary presentation and thus present a necklace of bhakti-tattva for their readers to wear. If that necklace actually represents the ornaments of Vraja, then both author and reader are enriched in their devotion and are empowered to chant the names of Radha and Krsna in ever-increasing ecstasy. Hare Krsna. 

If it appears that I got a little off the track in this newsletter, then that’s because I didn’t start with a sequence summary but wrote from the heart. Naughty me.

Newsletter: Physical Acts Can Manifest Devotion

So did you figure out how physical acts can manifest transcendental devotion? That was my teaser from the last newsletter. Here is the answer in short—no spoilers: Lord Caitanya says that by the mercy of guru and Krishna, one gets the seed of devotion, guru-krsna-prasade paya bhakti-lata-bija. What is the mercy of guru and Krishna? It is the bhakti in their hearts. Thus from their devotion, devotees receive the seed of devotion, the instructions on how to perform sadhana­, how to chant, how to understand Krishna, and so on. Seeing the effort of the sincere practitioner, by Krishna’s continued blessings the seed of eternal devotion manifests its spiritual nature throughout a devotee’s being. This is the process of spiritualisation, and the best analogy is the placing of an iron rod in the fire: the iron becomes fiery. Similarly, by the unfolding of the creeper of devotion, the activities of devotees, like mopping the temple room floor, become infused with the power of bhakti, and therefore these apparent material activities become devotional. Bhakti causes bhakti. The more assiduous, the more determined, and the more focused a devotee is in devotional acts, the more bhakti manifests its potency. Let us keep in mind that bhakti is not created, but is the eternal spiritual energy of Krishna. 

Thus, for diligent devotees, the increased manifestation of devotion keeps them enlivened and focused on their goal—prema. If devotees are slack, however, bhakti does not empower them and may even withdraw her potency. That causes despondency. Bhaktivinoda Thakura says, “Some people lament that they have not attained devotion to Krishna but at the same time they do not make any real attempt to raise themselves to the level of Krishna bhakti. They do not make any attempt to progress. These devotees at the level of vaidhi bhakti make no attempt to progress to bhava bhakti but lament that they have not attained bhava.” Sound familiar? 

One may also ask, “What about someone who does not have the seed of devotion, but still does some service, like mopping the floor?” The answer is that such activity is not bhakti, but will qualify him or her to soon receive the seed of bhakti. In summary, without the grace of Vaisnavas and Krishna, no activity—even chanting Hare Krishna—will produce the desired result. That’s it! 

The purpose of this book Sadhana-sara-dipika is to draw devotees’ attention to the importance of their sadhana and to warn them of mistaking bhakti to be a mechanical activity. I hope this newsletter has been sufficient in raising awareness of that, at least until the book comes to print.

Newsletter: Meant to Make You All Work

This newsletter is meant to make you all work. Well, not quite work, but to do devotional service, bhakti. And that devotional service will entail a little reading and a lot of thinking. Are you already putting this newsletter away? I hope not! Let me proffer one of the key truths that I am trying to articulate in the book Sadhana-sara-dipika, which I mentioned earlier that I was writing, and which I will be finishing when I am in Mayapur. It goes like this: 

There is a basic principle of devotional service that “bhakti gives birth to bhakti” [SB 11.3.31]. In other words, bhakti is a transcendental potency of Krishna and it is only brought about by bhakti. However, sadhana-bhakti is defined as physical acts that bring about transcendental bhava-bhakti [Cc Madhya 22.105]. For example, take the act of cleansing a temple that we sing about daily during mangala-arati. How does the physical act of mopping the floor, a material activity, awaken bhava-bhakti? There are so many floors being mopped all over the world. The cleaners don’t become bhava-bhaktas. So then why does a practicing devotee’s material activity awaken bhava? 

Such a proposition appears to be contrary to the principle of bhakti giving birth to bhakti, as well as the general principle that material things cannot bring about spiritual things. Matter comes from spirit, not spirit from matter. Moreover, how is sadhana even bhakti when it is comprised of conditioned souls’ acts and thoughts? Something to think about! And when you read Sadhana-sara-dipika, you can see if what you conclude is what acaryas and scriptures support. 

Now, if you have gotten this far in this newsletter, what to speak of if you actually gave thought to this paradox, then you know a little of what I go through when I write. I thought that rather than tell you about what I do when I write and what it requires for me to research and express important devotional topics, I would instead draw you into the effort itself and share a challenge with you. That was the theme of this newsletter—a taste of what it’s like to write. This kind of thinking strengthens one’s intelligence, and it was what Srila Prabhupada wanted to be part of the effort of reading his books. It is also what I hope my readers do when they read my books, especially philosophical books like Suddha-bhakti-cintamani and the current book. As you can see, reading is as serious a work as writing. It’s bhakti.