This is the last Pause for Thought in my current series, aired on Tuesday last on BBC Radio 2
My spiritual master Srila Prabhupada was once asked to speak to a group of school children. “Who is the most intelligent student here?” he asked. A sea of modest blank faces stared back but eventually one child was thrust forward by his obliging friends and Prabhupada said to him, “Please point to your head.”
The bemused boy, expecting a sterner examination of his intellectual powers, duly complied. His next challenge was to point to his arm, followed by his leg, stomach and chest. Having sailed through all these tests he was finally asked by Prabhupada to point to his self. The boy raised his finger and turned it inwards but then hesitated. Where indeed was the self?
It was perhaps no surprise that the student was perplexed. The puzzle of understanding who we are has vexed the greatest minds for millennia. Even the avowed materialist Thomas Huxley, known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ for his fierce advocacy of evolution, once said, “It seems to me pretty plain that there is a third thing in the universe, to wit, consciousness, which I cannot see to be matter or force or any conceivable modification of either.”
Well, at least there I would concur with the good Mr Huxley. So would Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita where he explains that the self or consciousness is different from the body it inhabits. In fact all of us regularly refer to that difference. “My body, my mind”, – there is a duality, a difference between the seer and the seen. Plainly the young lad taking Prabhupada’s test had realised this as his finger hovered over his chest and he understood that it was not really him, the actual person.
Krishna helps us directly perceive this by describing how the body constantly changes but the self is still the same. We all see it happening. I was looking wistfully at a photo of myself at the age of twenty the other day, slim, fit and bursting with life. Where is that body now? Certainly not occupied by me today, as the mirror mercilessly confirms when I dare glance at it. But I am certainly the same person that I was then. Only the vehicle has changed, not the driver.
This is the first point of the spiritual teachings in the Gita. Know thyself. You are not the body you inhabit and can never become happy merely by bodily enjoyment. That’s a lesson I’d like to see taught in more schools.
Here’s my Pause for Thought that was broadcast on 17 Jan on BBC Radio 2
Wandering about in my religious robes the other day, I happened to pop into a grocer and the assistant, plainly of another faith, took one look at me and asserted, “Your book is wrong.” Somewhat taken aback I assured him I had not come to discuss the merits of my book and he calmed down, but continued to eye me suspiciously.
I had to laugh when I left the shop, but disagreements between religions are of course not always so funny. How many times do we hear the argument that religion causes more wars than anything else? Personally though I take issue with that claim. Fair enough, we do see more than enough conflicts over whose book is right, and even some over what is the right interpretation of the same book, but is this really about religion?
The actual meaning of the word from the original Latin is to link with God. This too is how the Bhagavad-gita defines it, as the means by which one can know and ultimately love God. So really when properly practiced religion should be about love not hate.
Hatred comes from somewhere else, from seeing others as different and somehow inferior to us. It might attach itself to a religious pretext, but it can just as easily be attached to race, nationality, politics or football. It springs from egoistic pride and spiritual practice is meant to destroy that, to take us to the point of seeing ourselves and all others as parts of the same Supreme Spirit. When through proper religious practice our love for God awakens then our love for all of God’s creation will also manifest.
If we hate in the name of religion we have surely missed the point. And it is a point espoused by virtually all faiths, this life is not the all-in-all, we are meant for eternal service to God, and all of us are his children, all equal in his eyes. There may be some differences in practice or other externals, but these are really only details. Why argue over that?
So during this week of World Religion Day we should try to remember the common essence of religion, the attainment of divine love, and if we must hate then let us hate the ignorance that causes us to fight over misunderstandings and trifles.
This short snippet of one of our discussions shows the rhythm of active hearing. One devotee expresses her understanding of Srila Prabhupada and then her discussion partners reflect back to her what she has said. I am posting this not for the sake of sharing our philosophical insights, but just to share the rhythm of the discussion. Please specially note the use of some protocols we use that make the discussion gentler and sweeter. For example, we always ask if we’ve properly understood, and if the devotee speaking would like to say more. If some one understands us, we always thank them and let them know if they’ve properly understood us, or if we need to clarify. We try hard not to be confrontational, but to be supportive and appreciative….that encourages us to keep meeting.
BG 4.7 para2 discussion
This is my ‘Pause for Thought’ broadcast on Tuesday morning on BBC Radio 2
I didn’t make any new year resolutions, but I have been called upon recently to make some difficult lifestyle changes. Bouts of sinusitis have obliged me, under strict dietary advisement, to give up a range of foods including dairy products, wheat and various other items which had previously formed an integral part of my daily fare. Thus it is that I must now forgo the delights of cheese on toast, and indeed even toast itself. I wonder how long I can last.
Giving up things we like is not easy. There has to be a compelling reason, like not being able to breathe for example, which just about works for me. Or perhaps we will make some sacrifice now with the aim of achieving something superior in future. We operate on that principle quite often in life. We are prepared to undergo some immediate difficulty so that we can enjoy a later result. For example we might punish ourselves in the gym, driven on by a vision of that svelte and fit form we long for. As they say, no pain no gain.
This is good intelligence, to be proactive, delay gratification, keep in mind the future and see what will produce our enduring happiness rather than our immediate pleasure, which may actually result in longer term suffering.
This too is the principle of spiritual life, to be ultimately proactive and recognise what will secure our permanent happiness. Thankfully though, although spiritual practice leads to maximum gain, it does not require maximum pain. The Bhagavad-gita describes a path that is “fully joyful”, but like everything else there is a price to pay and some resolve is required. For example, instead of flopping down to read the paper or watch TV at the end of a hard day, which is a natural inclination, I take the time to hear and meditate upon divine instructions from scriptures like the Gita.
It requires some determination, for sure. The mind would rather indulge in material gratification, but I know that won’t make me happy. For me human life is meant for achieving the highest state of absolute happiness, and for that I am prepared to sacrifice a little bit of enjoyment now. We can achieve something unimaginably greater than that. The Gita says, “One who experiences the joy of self realisation feels there is no greater attainment and desires nothing more.” I reckon that beats even cheese on toast.
Krishna Dharma, Hare Krishna Priest and Author