Saturday, June 14, 2008

Path to Liberty

The following are the words of the great spiritual master, Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur:

"The Bhagavata teaches us that God gives us truth as He gave it to Vyasa: when we earnestly seek for it.

Truth is eternal and unexhausted. The soul receives a revelation when anxious for it. The souls of the great thinkers of the bygone ages, who now live spiritually, often approach our inquiring spirit and assist in its development. Thus Vyasa was assisted by Narada and Brahma.

Our Shastras, or in other words, books of thought, do not contain all that we could get from the infinite Father.

No book is without its errors.

God's revelation is absolute truth, but it is scarcely received and preserved in its natural purity. We have been advised in the 14th Chapter of 11th Skandha of the Bhagavata to believe that truth when revealed is absolute, but it gets the tincture of the nature of the receiver in course of time and is converted into error by continual exchange of hands from age to age. New revelations, therefore, are continually necessary in order to keep truth in its original purity. We are thus warned to be careful in our studies of old authors, however wise they are reputed to be.

Here we have full liberty to reject the wrong idea, which is not sanctioned by the peace of conscience. Vyasa was not satisfied with what he collected in the Vedas, arranged in the Puranas and composed in the Mahabharata. The peace of his conscience did not sanction his labors. It told him from within, "No, Vyasa! You cannot rest contented with the erroneous picture of truth which was necessarily presented to you by the sages of bygone days. You must yourself knock at the door of the inexhaustible store of truth from which the former ages drew their wealth. Go, go up to the fountainhead of truth, where no pilgrim meets with disappointment of any kind." Vyasa did it and obtained what he wanted. We have been all advised to do so.

Liberty then is the principle which we must consider as the most valuable gift of God. We must not allow ourselves to be led by those who lived and thought before us. We must think for ourselves and try to get further truths which are still undiscovered. In the Bhagavata we have been advised to take the spirit of the Shastras and not the words. The Bhagavata is therefore a religion of liberty, unmixed truth and absolute love."

A religion of liberty, the Thakur tells us, is not one of slavery to fashion, bureaucracy, group think or blind ritual. Coercion thru words or actions is never the means to liberty. Individual austerity, spiritual habits, tolerance of our own karma, humility and kindness to all jivas is the path to liberty.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Maharaj Yudhistira's Words

I just returned to Boston from Miami where i officiated at my uncle's funeral and cleared out his apartment in a condo resort inhabited by seniors. It's a beautifully landscaped property with a small lake and tropical flora in South Florida. It has the look and feel of an upscale kibbutz for wealthy Jewish 90 year olds. The vast majority of residents are semi-invalids who use walkers or wheelchairs to move around. Many have one or two caregivers (the new term for 'servant') to assist them. During the day, the residents come downstairs for their meals in a large dining hall cum restaurant. They then sit outside on lounge chairs, discussing their medications and health problems, or go into a large room filled with tables and chairs where they play cards with their peers or listen to guest speakers on subjects of interest to them. A few of the more savvy ones use the two computers in the card room to play solitaire. This is their public life.

My uncle was the most fit amongst them. Although he had just turned 91, he looked 15 years younger and walked around without any aids or servants. He took a lot of health supplements, being one of the early adaptors of vitamins. He ordered and swallowed thousands of dollars of alternative supplements every year. Perhaps it helped him, but in the end, he died from liver failure. I wonder if all those supplements were too much of a burden on his liver.

What struck me the most when i was cleaning out my uncle's apartment and living in this somewhat surreal world of well-off 90-year-olds are the words that Maharaj Yudhistira spoke to his father, Yamaraj, when asked about the most wonderful thing in this world. He famously answered that while death is all around everyone in this world, no one thinks that death will touch him.

While this is universally true for young people and even the middle-aged, by the time someone reaches 90, they know that death is approaching. They make out their wills; they see their relatives and friends dropping one by one; they look in the mirror and are sometimes stunned when they see the irrepressible force of old age. But a lifetime of habits and beliefs cannot be undone at the fag end of life. I observed my uncle during several visits before his final illness, and he basically carried on as best he could, with the habits he had established 50 or 60 years ago, when he was young. He didn't have the energy or passion he once had, but he tried to follow (or was forced to follow) the same basic patterns that took root during his youth and middle age. I'm sure he had thoughts about his own death, but he was helpless to do anything to prepare himself for it. So he continued to take those vitamin supplements, and hope against hope that the inevitable might be delayed.

I think the moral of this story is not to wait until old age to realize that death is indeed very close at hand. It's a neighbor one cannot get rid of, one can never move away from. The smart thing to do is to change one's habits to conform to this reality. Our mortality is alive and well, and this fact renders activities that are averse to the Supreme Spirit-- however attached we may be to them-- null and void of value.

The purport behind Maharaj Yudhistira's prescient observation is a lesson for us to take to heart. It means: don't follow the crowd blindly. And don't be a leader to blindly try to change the world. Stop following your mind and follow a mahajan. Change your habits accordingly and change your heart, while you still have blood pumping thru it.