Author Archives: thenamas

Plucking petals off flowers at the American Swami's Mumbai Flower Festival

An American Swami: And My Journey to His Home

temple deities in India

There may be a thousand people crammed in a large temple hall. If this were the U.S., it would likely be against fire code. But we are in Mumbai, India. With 26,000 people per square kilometer. This is an oasis of spirituality. A temple filled with love, gratitude, and flowers. A golden altar houses glorious deities, whose dressings and adornments change, daily. Lavish paintings and tapestries line the walls and ceilings. Many correlate to passages in the ancient scriptures. Gold-plated carvings, as intricate as the Italian renaissance palaces, grace the room. All eyes turn to the swami. An American Swami.

An Oasis of Peace and Love Built by an American Swami

ceiling at ISKCON Chowpatty Mumbai temple

This is a Krishna temple, filled with Indian men. Most are dressed in white. There are some tangerine-robed brahmacharyas. Every now and then, you spot someone in Western dress. One middle-aged gentleman sports an H&M bag. 

Despite the many men here, this is definitely a safe place for women of all ages. From grannies to toddlers. Most wear saris. To a lesser extent, younger women wear traditional long dress shirts over baggy pants, or leggings. The salwar kameez.

Radhanath Swami, an American swami in India

Three video cameras point at the American Swami. When he enters, many prostrate themselves in front of him as a sign of respect. Obeisances. The humble swami begins with Sanskrit chants. Then, he gives a lecture on the “Srimad Bhagavatan,” in the lingua franca of English. He drops in Sanskrit words frequently. But, his English reflects his American mid-western roots. The packed room of devotees applauds the swami generously when he’s done.  

It’s a bit incongruous.

At first glance, the man in charge here appears to be an Indian man, in his element. Indeed, he’s in his element. But, he hails from the suburbs of Chicago (like me). Furthermore, the American Swami is of Jewish ancestry (as am I). Thousands of devotees lovingly call this man Radhanath Swami.

Not unlike many of his Vietnam-war generation, he was disenchanted. At age 18, he hitchhiked throughout Europe and Asia. With little more than a harmonica in his pocket. His mission: find truth. Destination: India. He met many a guru before he found the real deal. Srila Prabhupada. That was almost 50 years ago. Now, Radhanath Swami is the sharer of truth. He has written a best-selling book, turned into a screenplay. More importantly, the American Swami has made an indelible mark in India. In the spiritual community and beyond.  

The American Swami’s Wide Reaching Charitable Endeavors

Plucking petals off flowers at the American Swami's Mumbai Flower Festival

This American Swami fostered a long list of charitable initiatives. There’s the Bhaktivedanta Hospital in Vrindavan. Sandipani Muni school for 1,500 underprivileged girls in Vrindavan. Mobile eye and dental clinics. Plus, a program serving 1.3 million lunches a day in India. Additionally, he established an award winning eco-village. That initiative includes a rural women’s empowerment program, and systems to boost agricultural outcomes for 900 previously near-starving farmers. 

Today, in Mumbai, however, the attention is all focused on the beauty of the temple adorned in flowers of all different hues. In the morning, women sit on the floor in a large room. They form small group surrounding baskets. We pluck petals off the flowers.  One group is working on marigold-colored flowers. Another, crimson. Others, garden-fresh white blossoms. In my group, I am the only foreigner. We are young, and old. Of diverse socio-economic strata. We have many different mother tongues (there are 22 “constitutional” languages in India).

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival, the brainchild of the American Swami in India

In the main sanctuary, there is more diversity. The room is about the size of a basketball court, including the sidelines. Here, are the men. Children and some women, too. All are one. All focus on the same repetitive task. Plucking petals. Periodically, a few men with tilak on their foreheads bring out bushels of new, intact, flowers, and they pick up the color-separated baskets of soft feathery petals.

The plucking, in itself, is a bit of a meditation. But, the reason behind this is not revealed until Radhanath Swami returns to his microphone in the evening. In the meantime, we all dutifully perform the petal plucking. 

Our senses are satiated. We are surrounded by the sweet aroma of the flowers. The touch of the soft petals, and sturdier stems, against our fingers. And, a radiant array of colors surrounds us.   In all, more than 2,300 pounds of flowers. Marigolds. Chrysanthemums. Roses from Vrindavan. Jasmines from Coimbatore.

A Ton of Flowers in a Sanctuary

flower garlands fill the sanctuary at the Mumbai Chowpatty Iskcon temple for the Flower Festival

This is the Mumbai Flower Festival. Also the brainchild of the American-born swami.

In the evening ceremony, devotees squeeze into the sanctuary. We line up at least an hour in advance to get prime spots on the floor, eye to eye with Radhanath Swami. Everyone sits knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder. We are the lucky ones. The overflow watches from a large screen in the patio, below. Around the world, others tune in on a live stream.

The evening includes chanting led by Radhanath Swami. Behind me, are recording artists Gaura Vani and Jahnavi Harrison. They provide beautiful subtle background instrumentation and vocals.  Periodically, we all join in the chanting.  

Then, it’s time for the reveal. What, in fact, are we all doing here?

flower garlands fill the sanctuary at the Mumbai Chowpatty Iskcon temple for the Flower Festival

Radhanath Swami explains that we, humans, are like the flowers. All different colors.  Some from Mumbai. Others from Southern India. Still others, from the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. We are different sizes, scents, and senses.  Alone, or with our own, we are beautiful. But, when we are all together, mixed like potpourri, it’s an amazing sight. And feeling. Incredible touch on our hair…arms…clothing. There is, perhaps, nothing more beautiful than this. Unity in diversity. Beauty in diversity. Power in diversity. 

A Sea of Multi-colored Petals — The American Swami’s Analogy for Beauty in Diversity

At this point, from the altar, men overturn the individual oversized baskets of petals onto the deities. First, they are bathed in white petals. Then, yellow petals. Next, purple. One color, after another, we see the layers floating on top of the deities. After about two or three dozen huge baskets of uni-colored petals raining onto the deities, we see a slight meshing of colors. Subtle dark red peaking through the oranges. Flecks of white or yellow, underneath or between.

The crowd is in ecstasy. But, the high point is yet to come. 

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival

Soon, we see a confetti of multi-colored petals. The deities themselves are completely hidden by all the beautiful colored flower parts. Petals form mountains atop the deities. Mountains keep growing, like layers of snow. A landslide is pending. There are so many layers upon layers of different colored flowers. Gold upon orange. Scarlet upon vermillion.  Color-less among the vivid. 

When there are no more petals to pour onto the Mount Everest looking deities, the fun begins. Think Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street. Petals. Not beads. Devotion and spirituality. Not spirits.   

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival

The mounds of delicate flowers are strewn upon the gazers. We are covered with orange. Pink. White. So many beautiful colors. All together. The confetti of petals. The diversity of our world. Of individuals. When all the petals make their way into the central area, atop the hundreds of fellow worshipers, all become kids. Spry folks bend down and scoop up the piles of petals by our feet. We let the petals fall like rain on those around us. Friends toss handfuls on each others’ heads. Or lightly spray their faces with the multi-colored blessed petals.

“The flower festival is like being on drugs in the 60s. But you’re not,” says Gaura Vani, the musician. In fact, Gaura Vani left the Hollywood scene to re-dedicate his life to Radhanath Swami and the teachings of Srila Prabhupada.

The Petals Remain with us Forever

One ton of flowers are strewn like confetti at the Iskcon Mumbai Flower Festival, the brainchild of the American Swami in India

Five months later, Mark, who works in the financial industry in Chicago, says the petals are still with him. “The pockets of my kurta have an unlimited supply of potpourri. It’s magical.” Lauren, a comedian living in Los Angeles, too, carries the remnants with her nearly half a year later. “Just found ANOTHER flower petal from Mumbai in my purse,” she notes with a laugh.

Just as Mardi Gras may be unforgettable to many, the Mumbai Flower Festival, concepted by a Jewish-turned-Vaishnava man who threw away his blue jeans in favor of an orange robe, is like nothing else. We are all in a state of light-headedness. Bliss. Devotion. Awe. Despite our countries of origin, race, religion, we are flying high. Equal. Respecting one another. And, as is the norm for followers of the ISKCON traditions, drug- and alcohol-free.         

India is a land of spirituality. Siddharta Gautama, the buddha, left India for Asia where he was (and is) considered a Supreme Being. Likewise, many yogis left India to create large followings in the West. Srila Prabhupada, left India, with only a few dollars in his pocket, and created an enormous legacy for spirituality, around the world. But, sometimes it needs a boon in the west to gain more momentum in the homeland. Srila Prabhupada’s work in other lands has only strengthened the following in India. Likewise, it took a kid from Chicago to bring back, replant and nourish the 5000-year-old learnings from India. 

And, thanks to modern-day technology, everyone can connect in the learnings and experiences.

gutsy yoga

Yoga and GI Disorders aka Gutsy Yoga

Gutsy Yoga. That’s the name of my signature workshops that explores yoga and GI disorders, helping people deal with digestive issues. (Note: A GUTSY YOGA workshop will take place at The Namaste Getaway Saturday, June 15.  Contact Deborah to register, or for details.)

I developed Gutsy Yoga, in part, because of my personal health history. And, my solution: Yoga and GI disorders. As an adolescent, I had all the testing done. Diagnosis:  irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).  Then, as a young adult, I experienced flare ups whenever I went out to dinner with a certain set of people. Can’t say for sure if the trigger was the food, overeating, conversation, or company.

Yoga and GI Disorders: A Personal Story

Govind Das turned to yoga for his GI disorders

My worst experiences were while I was living and working, undocumented, in Mexico City, Once, in my true style, I endured severe pain until my class ended. I put my books and tapes in my backpack, and waited for a bus to take me to the nearest hospital ER. In Mexico, I practiced breathwork between sips of manzanilla tea, ideally at a beach or poolside. Not because I wanted to swim or sunbathe, but because I’d learned early on that many of our physical problems are emotional.

Unlike my Sarah Bernhardt sister, I held everything inside, causing havoc on my innards.

In retrospect, I have my tummy to thank for bringing me to the lotus pose. Once I had an established practice, my pains were few and far between. The last time I had too much pain to endure my asana practice, was the morning of my father’s burial. Never one to say ‘no,’ I carried most the responsibilities on my shoulders — and in my belly.

So, I understand the connection between the brain and the belly, and yoga and GI disorders. That’s why as a yoga therapist, I want others to make the connection between the different branches of yoga, the body and the brain and use the branches of yoga to heal their dis-eases.

The Story of Another Guy’s Yoga and GI Disorders

Govind Das is what some may call a Celebri-Yogi. He headlines at all Bhakti Fests, owns a popular yoga studio in Santa Monica, and has recorded CDs with his wife Radha.

This guy is the epitome of a calm, cool, collected, yogi. So I was curious when I heard that his path to yoga was similar to mine. Govind Das’ complications were severe. He suffered from ulcerative colitis and IBS, with some diagnosing the cause as the incurable Crohn’s. His antidote was a trifecta: yoga, bhakti and Ayurveda.

“Here I was, in my 20s… my body wasn’t working. I didn’t know what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life.” Govind Das recalls, “I had a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety. I felt there was so much more. My birthright is to be healthy and well. My spiritual self had been awakened, but I didn’t know how to express that. So, I walked into my first yoga class, ever, at 24. I walked out and I knew that yoga was going to be my avenue … my tool for healing.”

He was in a rut, but his inner wisdom knew the way out. As he delved deeper into yoga, he experienced teachers, Krishna Das, Jai Uttal and Ram Dass, all of whom led him toward Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji), who ultimately would become his guru.

Neem Karoli BabaGovind Das Turned to Yoga for Digestive Relief

“Everything was pointing to him,” recalls Govind Das. “Neem Karoli Baba said, ‘Suffering is Great.’ Our suffering, our challenges, push us to evolve. Illness. Financial struggles. They are not mistakes. There are no mistakes. If we see them as gifts, they are opportunities to grow.”

Govind Das‘ physical ailments were his opportunity for spiritual development.  “From that place of acceptance, we can start to put new routines in our life that produce karmic roots. We have to have a deep faith in that law. From that faith, our healing can take place.”

The bhakti embodiment of love and unity were appealing to him. Of course the road between a first yoga class and becoming a bhakta (devotee) is long. Likewise, overcoming years of ill health are not overturned like magic. After a certain period of time, his symptoms started to recede, and a new digestive system manifested. He took on a new identity, a new name, and a new view of life.

“It was mental, emotional and spiritual. It took a radical shift of my being, for that new being to take root in my body.” He learned to “Relax and feel your way into the journey. Let yourself flow into a vast ocean of love … A field of unified energy. Let it be a tool … An opportunity to come back to your essence.”

Govind Das Turned to Ayurveda for Digestive Relief

Thus, Govind Das turned to Ayurveda, which goes to the root of the problem and works to find the missing internal balance. His anxiety and fear, for example, are indicators of excess vata, as is IBS.  Moreover, he heeded his Ayurvedic doctor’s challenging Rx.

“I grew up eating tremendous amounts of white sugar and white bread. The large intestine is where it all ends up,” says Govind Das. So he adopted a more yogic and Ayurvedic way of eating based on whole, organic, unprocessed foods. Basically, ensuring there was more prana (life force) entering his body, and less tamassic or rajassic (aggravating) foods.

Swami Vishnu-Devananda

Swami Vishnu-Devananda

“My Ayurvedic doctor put me on a kitchari (mung beans with rice) diet for two years. It was 75 percent of my diet. The taste of kitchari is completely satisfying to the tastebuds. (Before,) I spent so much time wasting energy and time, thinking about what I was going to eat.  Mung dal is (the goddess) Lakshmi herself. Those yellow mung dal are golden. They’re very easy on the digestive system, balancing to pitta and vata.”

As is always the case with yoga therapy and Ayurveda, you need to constantly monitor your lifestyle. Nothing in life is constant, hence, imbalances can still arise.

“I consider myself healed, but it’s something I have to continually manage. The flare-ups in the past would last for years. Now, I know what I need to do. I believe so much of digestive stuff is related to emotional aspects of our lives. I think if anybody has digestive things going on, it’d be worth looking at that. Where is fear present in my life? Worry? Anxiety?”

Swami Vishnu-Devananda, who is responsible for bringing Sivananda Yoga to the western world, in one of his books, acknowledges the strong link between the emotions and the body. “Every emotion takes its toll on the body. The constant tension put on the mind owing to unnecessary worries and anxieties takes away more energy than physical tension. However one tries to relax the mind, one cannot completely remove all tensions and worries from the mind unless one goes to spiritual relaxation.”

varanasi-sunrise-Ganges

Spiritual Varanasi, India

In my last article, I spoke about finding thousands of Ganeshas in Varanasi. Unexpectedly. Beyond the Ganeshas, almost everywhere in Varanasi spirituality was overflowing.

Pre-dawn puja on the Ganges at Varanasi

“It is the headquarters of the Brahmin faith, and one-eighth of the population are priests of that church.*”

varanasi-sunrise-Ganges

Just as I relished morning arati in Vrindavan, I woke up early each day in Varanasi. Here, mangala arati was on the holy Ganges.

“The Ganges itself and every individual drop of water in it are temples.*” 

Bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi, India

Before arati started, I strolled along the sand. In the pre-dawn hours, people carefully disrobed and blessed themselves by bathing in the river. Despite the fact that people, especially men, took dips into the Ganges under daylight, it seemed more sanctified prior to the first morning rays.

“All India flocks thither on pilgrimage…*”

The mangala prayer services in the two ever-so-holy towns of Vrindavan and Varanasi were very different. In Vrindavan, it was at ISKCON temple. Prayer was filled with music and devotion to the deities. It appeared as if the vast majority of Vrindavan attendees were local residents. Both Indian and non-Indian.

Morning arati at Ganges in Varanasi, India

Varanasi arati, however, attracted visitors. Albeit primarily visitors of Indian ancestry. Second, prayers in Varanasi didn’t begin at 4:15 a.m. like Vrindavan’s arati. It was much closer to the actual sunrise in Varanasi. Around 6:30 a.m. Furthermore, I didn’t notice deities in Varanasi. It was more of a fire ceremony.

Morning arati at the Ganges in Varanasi, India

In Vrindavan, after the main prayers, women and men formed different circles to circumambulate around a tulsi plant. In Varanasi, many stayed to listen to ragas, live, on stage. Next, it was yoga time. Men sat on lines of red carpet. The women clustered together under a canopy. The practice included 30 minutes of pranayama. Then, 20 minutes of asanas. Rather than closing with savasana, each session ended with laughter yoga.

Varanasi-sunset arati on the Ganges

Evening arati was just as magical as the morning’s in Varanasi. I opted out of the touristy river boat barge views of the ceremony, to sit alongside hundreds, or thousands, of Indians at the waterfront. The white smoke, set against the black night sky was beautiful. So was chanting among the enormous crowd of worshippers.

“Where this eternal light intersects the earth, it is known as Kashi.”**

Evening arati on the Ganges in Varanasi, India

In Varanasi, morning and evening arati were like bookeends. In between, I strolled around the innumerable sacred temples. Some, were in a near state of ruins. Others, were hiding behind buildings, or tunnels. Surprisingly, the most visited, Kashi Vishwanath, was hiding behind untold heaps of construction. And, a maze of visitors in queue. Most likely, waiting at least an hour to approach the sacred space. The endless string of people inched toward the temple, barefoot, as slow as turtles.

Once past the security guards and magnetometers, we were rushed through the ancient golden temple. Certainly to ensure that as many people as possible could pass through this holiest of sites dedicated to Lord Shiva.

“Benares is the sacredest of sacred cities. The moment you step across the sharply-defined line which separates it from the rest of the globe, you stand upon ineffably and unspeakably holy ground.*”

Being herded through the masses to catch a mini-darshan didn’t exactly get me to a state of blissful spirituality. Being one of just a handful of people at an ancient temple in Varanasi, did. Set amid grey rubble was a pristine orange pagoda-like temple.

“The journey to sacred places is the most common way that people travel in India.”**

Near Lalita ghat was a Nepali temple

Near Lalita ghat was a Nepali temple. According to one local guide, “This is one of the oldest and unique temple of Varanasi as it is made up of woods. It is also called as the replica of Pasupatinath temple (Kathmandu, Nepal).” Constructed by a former King of Nepal, it is a most peaceful spiritual place.

All in all, Varanasi made an impact on me. Definitely a place I’d like to return.

*excerpts from Mark Twain’s “Following the Equator,”  Chapter 50

** quotes from Diana L. Eck, author of “Bananas: City of Light”

Surrounded by Ganesha in Varanasi

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

Saving the best for last on my spiritual tour of Northern India was Varanasi. AKA Kashi (city of light) and Benares. Hindus flock here for spiritual cleansing. Plus, this part of the Ganges is the preferred site for cremation and/or releasing ashes. While popular among foreigners, spying on sacred burial rites wasn’t my cup of tea. Rather, a highlight for me was finding thousands of images of Ganesha and other deities.  All in one small room.

After a lovely mangala arati (morning prayer ceremony), followed by ragas and yoga at the Ganges, I was in a state of bliss. I let my intuition guide me to a storefront (the only one I entered in all Varanasi). This was no shopping spree. It was a spiritual infusion.

In all, I spent more than an hour with brothers for whom their lives evolve around Ganesha, and other deities. 

Ashok and Vijay are two of 10 Murtikar siblings. Appropriately, Murtikar means statue maker. Not just any statue, but sacred ones. For generations, the Murtikar men have been carving images of Ganesha, Saraswati and Shiva out of stone. 

Ashok is one of the elders. He has a wonderfully calming demeanor.

Carving Deities as Meditation

carved deities in Varanasi, India

Ashok followed in his father’s footsteps, carving deities, large and small. 

“All time, I sit with papa. Sometimes, I broke (the stone). ‘Again.’” His father would gently encourage him, just like an American dad may say to his child learning to ride a bike.

Creating gods out of stone is a form of meditation for Ashok.  He has such a gentle nature and mannerisms. You can almost visualize how he delicately carves deities with utmost respect and devotion. Not all of what Ashok creates are rooted in his father’s teachings. Some evolve from his dreams.  

“Working, working, working. Stone is the energy. Nature. Mountain.  It’s power.  Prana. Shakti.” 

You can feel his mindfulness in his presence, and in his speech. There is a grace that permeates the space. While Ashok oozes a meditative calm, the younger Vijay is different. He’s focused on Ganesha. He prefers paper to stone. And, he works at lightning pace.

Drawing Ganesha as Meditation

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

I’m enthralled with the back room where Ashok takes me. It’s behind the showroom. It looks like a library. Seems full of Vijay’s treasures. There are shelves, floor to ceiling, stashed with drawing pads. Piles of the loose drawings or sketchpads fill the floor. It’s hard to imagine how many drawings are in this one room. 

All are Vijay’s work. Furthermore, all the drawing books are filled with sketches of Ganesha. The overcomer of obstacles. I was mesmerized by the idea that one person would spend their life drawing only images of the elephant god with twisted trunk.

A good percentage of the drawings are monochromatic. Yet, others feature bold colors in geometric shapes.

Ganesha is Happiness

I was in a meditative state, sitting on the floor, rummaging through his deities. This was the most comprehensive collection I could imagine of the iconic elephant on top of a mouse. I was in awe of Vijay’s unparalleled production of Ganeshas. In fact, the marathon Ganesha artist said at times he draws Ganesha for “51, 54, 56 hours non-stop.”

 a marathon ganesha maker in Varanasi, India

“Ganesha is the honor of God. Ganesha is the good brain, giving good luck…happiness always.”

Apparently, he wasn’t as interested in the stonework of multiple generations of Murtikar men.  Most of all, his mother was a great influence. “Your mother is your first, first and first teacher.” 

Nonetheless, he credits both parents for his affinity toward Ganesha. “I see Ganesha everywhere…my parents always worshipped in front of the Lord Ganesha before starting any work on any new sculpture,” he told another newspaper.

“I make a lot of exhibitions.” Actually, three times he was invited by the government to display the elephant deities in a museum in the holy city of Dharmasala (where the Dalai Lama resides). His art has also been shown in Thailand and the United States. The man with Ganesha in his heart may draw 100 images before he selects just the right one for an exhibit.

Not only is he prolific, he’s protected by a higher source. Or, rather, his Ganeshas are protected.  Actually, one of his drawing books is badly worn away from critters. The edges of dozens of pages are frayed. Yet, Vijay smiles as he says no mouse has never touched the images of Ganesha.

His personal collection of Ganesha and other deities, on paper and stone, he estimates at more than 51,000.

Art is Spiritual

Deity makers in Varanasi, India

“Art is the way of the life. Hidden beauty. Spiritual height,” for Vijay. It also seems to be his drug. It powers him. Gives him his spiritual and physical well being. Regardless of what fuels him, he notes that there are messages in his paintings. Sometimes, painting to the sound of tabla drumming, helps reveal messages. “All my paintings have a story.”

One Ganesha, he explains, relates to our body. The five elements, like auras, against a full sky.

First off, colors all have meaning. 

“There is depth in light. All religions love white,” which he equates to sweetness. Black and white, too, is important. Red stands for equality. Because we all bleed the same color. Green is happiness. Orange is luck. Not surprisingly, blue represents water and sky.

Moreover, the thought behind the art is extremely important. 

Finally, he vocalizes his own sense of meditation through art. “I’m never disturbed. I’m an artist.”

Read more about spiritual India, including words of wisdom from Men in Orange.

Ahimsa in India: Wildlife Sanctuaries

Travel, to me, is about learning and sharing. Karma yoga (self-less service) has been integral to my trips the last ten years. The yamas and niyamas also surface when I travel. No cruises or resorts. I enjoy home stays, and support ethical tourism.  Likewise, when I shop, I prefer to buy from artisans or non-profits.

Travel, to me, is about learning and sharing. Karma yoga (self-less service) has been integral to my trips the last ten years. The yamas and niyamas also surface when I travel. No cruises or resorts. I enjoy home stays, and support ethical tourism.  Likewise, when I shop, I prefer to buy from artisans or non-profits. On my last trip, I sought out examples of ahimsa in India.

Among my greatest memories were visits with non-profits displaying ahimsa in India. I learned firsthand about societal needs. Plus, I witnessed the operations and enterprises of those dedicated to make a difference.

One day, we had the choice of shopping, relaxing, or visiting an elephant sanctuary. I opted for the elephant sanctuary. Easy choice. Especially after I discovered it was part of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s India itinerary.

Canada’s PM has always been one of my favorite politicians.  He can rock some very challenging asanas. More importantly, married to a yoga instructor, he reflects yogic principles, such as ahimsa. Do no harm to any living being. 

Wildlife SOS in Mathura is a great example of ahimsa in India. Himsa (violence), unfortunately, has been common in India for centuries, when it comes to some animals. The essence of ahimsa isn’t reserved for humans. So hearing and seeing the vestiges of the animal abuse was disheartening. Hopefully, people will recognize how animals are tortured in the name of tourism, religion, or traditions, and help put the A in A-himsa.  

Ahimsa in India at Wildlife SOS

ahimsa in India at Wildlife SOS

Wildlife SOS opened its elephant sanctuary in 2010 in response to the dire need to protect, rescue and rehabilitate elephants in India. Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna, is 60 kilometers northwest of Agra. About 8 million tourists head to Agra’s Taj Mahal, yearly. However, highly linked to the tourism industry, are slave-like conditions of beautiful animals. 

Our Wildlife SOS guide, appropriately named Siva, made it clear that elephants should not be toys or photo opps for tourists. Ahimsa. Siva shared that big businesses, including hotels, often circumvent the laws. Just to put wild animals on display in an unnatural, harmful manner.

Thanks in part to Wildlife SOS, the Indian government enacted laws to protect the animals. Ahimsa in India. However, laws can’t erase the damage done…to the wildlife and eco-system. Nor can laws can’t reverse cultural attitudes and practices overnight.

Hence, the role of Wildlife SOS goes beyond rescuing and rehabilitating the animals. Wildlife SOS lobbies government to protect the animals. At the same time, public awareness is essential to stop abusive animal trades.

Animals are Sentient Social Beings

ahimsa in India at Wildlife SOS

Himsa is obvious when you see the tools of the trade for the elephant “masters.” Torture is routinely inflicted on the elephants to force them to follow man’s orders. This is against the rules of nature, Siva suggested. No animal that weighs thousands of pounds should be subservient to a 140-pound man.  

Beyond the methods of torture use on the animals, they are separated from everything that’s normal for them. Elephants are long migratory animals. In fact, the roaming contributes to proper gene flow. Aside from the fact that these elephants are brought to some of the largest cities in the world, their natural habitats are now almost non-existent. Humans have encroached on the elephants’ eco-systems and patterns. At one point in time, “The whole of India was for elephants,” says Siva. “Now, it’s just patches.” Stark patches. Himsa. Consider that six out of every seven elephants in India are now captive.

Regrettably, once elephants have a taste of captivity, they cannot be released back into the wild. They no longer can fend for themselves.  Moreover, elephants are social animals. In captivity they are isolated.  

“It’s like a slavery industry,” adds Siva. “These are wild animals. They should never be in the human world.  We are trying to give them as much space as possible (at Wildlife SOS).”

Himsa vs. Ahimsa in India

All the 21 elephants at the Mathura Wildlife SOS sanctuary were in critical state when they arrived. Emaciated. Wounded. Physically and emotionally. 

Wildlife SOS dispenses veterinary care, proper diet, and positive attention. Additionally, the staff encourages the socialization between the elephants. Several of the elephants are partnered with their best buddies. 

Before and after pictures of the elephants display the realities. Appalling. Inhumane.

One case. Raju was in chains for 50 years. He passed through 27 owners. “He was a skeleton when he came to us,” Siva says. 

Another example. Asha had joint and leg injuries as a result of carrying tourists up steep inclines on hot pavement.

Still another. Phookali was a “begging elephant” for many decades. When rescued, she was blind, and could barely stand. 

And yet another. Kalpana was eating the dirt and mud when Wildlife SOS transported her to their animal hospital. She was blind and dehydrated. The Wildlife SOS ambulance, the first of its kind in India, included watermelons, pumpkins and sugarcane to immediately nurse her back to health. 

11 Sanctuaries Across India

In 1995, Wildlife SOS began to rescue dancing bears – and their owners. In 1998, the 400-year-old practice was banned. The non-profit recognized that livelihoods passed down from one generation to the next were lost. As a result, Wildlife SOS re-trains the bear owners, and even supports them to launch new businesses. 

Today, India is free of dancing bears. Wildlife SOS has 11 centers. Among them, six are for bears, two for elephants and one for leopards. The organization also rescues, rehabilitates and attempts to release back into the wild, hundreds of primates and thousands of reptiles.

Wildlife SOS, with a 501c3 designation, welcomes donations. Visitors in India can shop at their cafes and gift shops. Better yet, volunteer for several weeks at a time.

candramauli swami of ISKCON Prison Ministry

Men in Orange #8: ISKCON Prison Ministry

Candramauli Swami is one of the Men in Orange who sat with us at our wall-free classrooms in India. He has been wearing his orange robe for five decades. However, he spends much time with men that some of us picture wearing black and white stripes. Five decades ago he became a direct disciple of Srila Prabhupada. The founder of ISKCON, Prabhupada first approached incarcerated populations in Delhi in 1962, not long before he came to America to bring spirituality West. His teachings led to the creation of the ISKCON Prison Ministry, established more than 30 years ago.

Candramauli Swami currently leads that endeavor, and has authored two books about spirituality and the incarcerated. The “Holy Jail” redacts activities of the ISKCON Prison Ministry that has changed the lives of hundreds of inmates. His second book is called “Forbidden Voices.”  

Originally from New Jersey, he spends most of his time based out of an ashram in Chicago. Nonetheless, he travels frequently to share his wisdom. Our stars aligned. He was at both the Mumbai Flower Festival and later Govardhan Eco Village while my group was there. The following summarizes his pre-kirtan discussion with our group.

What About Me?

From 1986-1991 Candramauli Swami visited directly with people in prisons. Later, he began letter writing outreach. Today, he does both. “Prabhupada wanted this kind of preaching. We have good success.” As part of the ISKCON prison ministry, one former inmate joined the Chicago temple and writes a newsletter for the incarcerated. 

Candramauli Swami of Iskcon Prison Ministry
Candramauli Swami leads kirtan at Govardhan Eco Village

The ISKCON prison ministry program is a wonderful way to reach the hearts of people that are considered persona non grata, explains Candramauli Swami. The inmates can start to relate to other people more. ISKCON prison ministry transforms them inside and outside. 

Matter changes. It begins, develops, deteriorates and vanishes. Likewise, this body will begin and end. What is the heart? It’s a machine. It’s just an organ. The brain is simply a machine.

But WE (our souls) are eternal. The soul (you) is in the heart region. We naturally want to feed that soul. On the spiritual plane, every thing is perfect.  Yet, we spend practically all of our time doing things that are related to body. But what about me (my soul)?. When we focus on the material, we are surrounded by temporality. 

If you take all the parts of the body and put them together, do you have a life? There’s something else that gives animation to the body. That’s you. The soul.

So what is the answer? Spirituality.  As we connect with God, we connect with ourselves. 

Spiritual activity is reality. Peace in spiritual life is always growing.  Spirituality only gets more and more brilliant when you feed it. For example, the closer you get to fire the more you feel the heat.

Spiritual Life is Life. 

Participants chant with Candramauli Swami at Govardhan Eco Village

Material life is what we do in this life to fulfill our desires. Our relationship with God is our relationship with everything. Everything is connected to the source. Everything is connected to God. 

Consider the tale of a man in search of a buried treasure. He never finds it. Once he dies, he’s buried. And guess what? When they dig his grave, they find the treasure. That is an analogy for the concept that happiness is in your soul. It’s always part of you. Just buried sometimes. However, oftentimes, spiritual life can awaken you.

Or, consider your dreams. Who is seeing, and who is being seen?  Who’s real?  The one watching is the soul. Even in our wakened state we are seeing ourselves.

We need to turn things around. Educate that which comes from within. At the Universities we don’t get an education. We get a coat of paint. God is like the stomach. When you feed it, it expands. The soul knows everything. Past, present and future. The soul experiences no unhappiness. 

As we connect with sound, it awakens this happiness. The most powerful form of energy in this world is sound. Sound can create, destroy, transform. 

ISKCON Prison Ministry Feeds the Soul.

Sound vibrations are so powerful. The ear never stops acting. It is always alert to sounds, and our bodies feel vibrations.

Most of us recognize music as the language of the heart. It brings us happiness.

By chanting, you’re feeding your soul.  Chanting leads to a deep sense of peace. From that peace comes happines.  That joy is not something you can manufacture. It all starts from sound. 

Trying to understand through logic and reason falls short. You must feel it. Experience it. Then, you’ll believe it.

Move On. Karma is the Past.

Close up of ISKCON Mumbai temple carvings adorned with flowers

Some people think they have bad karma. Karma is very difficult. Some children may show signs of superb intelligence. Like a Beethoven. That, too, you can say is karma. Karma is not just the bad. Karma is simply our past histories. The soul is carrying karma from previous lives. No one is born with a clean slate. No one is perfect. Bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. Regardless, you can improve your standing. That’s one of the intangible benefits of the ISKCON prison ministry program.

For those incarcerated, they have a heavy burden, and slimmer futures that most of us. Yet, we all experience periods of unhappiness. We we can’t stay in that state of consciousness. We have to move on. When you’re connected on a spiritual level, you move on. When we live our life around God, when we lose something from the material world, we move on. 

Give your love and emotions to God and you’ll always feel positive. He’ll reciprocate. 

We are all coming from the spiritual world. Some have chosen to leave God, and enjoy their days separately from God. God doesn’t interfere with your independence, or your choices. 

You can’t force someone to love you. If so, it’s not really love. Love is voluntary. Same with love for God.

Finally, time is conspicuous by its absence. Anything that’s born is under the influence of time. But in the spiritual world, there is no past or future. Just present. We think in terms of future and past. Learn from the past. Live in the future. However, everything exists now.

More Men in Orange

Read the other installments of Travels in India with Men in Orange, featuring learnings from Radhanath Swami, Chaitanya Charan and Shyamananda Das.

Photo of Srila Prabupadha in Vrindavan

Men in Orange #7. Radhanath Swami Speaks about Vrindavan

One of the many reasons why I chose to travel to India, earlier this year, was to visit the holiest of places. Vrindavan was top of the list, and my group stayed in Vrindavan for four nights. Throughout our journeys, we were accompanied by two men in orange, about whom I previously published six articles

Both these two Mumbai-based monks, as well as the two Chicago-based women who coordinated our tour, are disciples of Radhanath Swami. Coincidentally, Radhanath Swami was born and raised Jewish, in Chicago, as was I.  I’d heard this best-selling author and founder of numerous mega-charitable initiatives speak many times during his travels to the U.S. This trip was different. We were on his turf. My small group was graced to have an intimate get-together with him in his Mumbai office. Later that day, we were among the lucky ones granted entrance into his jam-packed temple for an incredible Flower Festival. 

A week later, we heard him speak to visitors at his award-winning Govardhan Eco-Village, located several hours north of Mumbai. At one of those open-air sessions, as we sat upon cow dung “flooring,” he spoke about the importance of visiting Vrindavan.  The following is a synthesis of his remarks. (Note: Radhanath Swami will give a rare public lecture in Chicago April 27, from 6-8 p.m. at Harris Hall in Evanston.)

Vrindavan is the world capital of bhakti (devotion/divine love).

Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, there are references to devotion.  Krishna says, “as one approaches me, with the sincerity of one’s motivations, that’s how the lord will respond.”  Other interpretations are, “As they approach me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to me.” Or, “In whatever way a devotee approaches him, he accepts them, for men approach him from all directions (4.11).

If you look at the history, such as England and India, “control,” is not positive.  When we are subordinated, we are controlled. Subordinate means losing. It’s a negative word. Yet in the spiritual world, it’s most beautiful to be subordinate to God’s heart. That is the highest liberation. The ultimate liberation. To love is to serve selflessly. Without arrogance.  

All of the great spiritual enlightened people have taught us that we must experience happiness in our heart. Real wisdom is to see the hand of God and to be grateful, as a grateful heart can recognize the blessings in everything. Gratitude is one of the most essential virtues for real inner prosperity and happiness because it can connect us to the Divine.

In the science of divine love, there is union and separation. That is magnified in Vrindavan. Here, the bhava or the feeling of prema or love between the Lord and His devotees is always increasing through union and separation.  Actually, the Lord never leaves Vrindavan, neither does He leave our hearts.

Vrindavan is a holy pilgrimage site

It’s important to be in a holy place of pilgrimage. Vrindavan has always been a primary aspiration for Vaishnavas seeking a spiritual pilgrimage. 

Why do all the spiritual paths recommend pilgrimages?  During a pilgrimage, one puts everything else on hold. It’s a time when we can invest — spiritually. Whatever benefits we get are forever there in our hearts. Going to a place of pilgrimage is so important. It’s a time in our lives to just seek our spiritual goal. 

We take for granted all the miracles all around us, such as the light from the sun. Vrindavan is not only an incredible place from the spiritual aspect, but also from a place of history. Vrindavan was Krishna’s playground. The sites for his lila

At a holy place, there is eternal love and beauty.  When we speak of spiritual energy, it’s never lost. The blessings of a spiritual energy you never lose. If you’re tuned into the spiritual channel it’s very clear. Without that energy, it’s static. If we go to a holy place, we can be spiritually transformed. We pray together. Chant together. That association (sangha) is very important.

The power of grace in Vrindavan

Radhanath Swami at ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai

Bhakti means to tune into grace – to Krishna’s grace which is all pervading. The path of bhakti is to access that grace by humility and devotion. Thus, we cleanse our heart through the path of bhakti

The power of grace may be the greatest power. This grace which is the extension of God’s love can heal. The grace can intervene, and bring light to where there was darkness. Even when there’s such misdirection. 

The founder of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada, said, “if one chants the names of the Lord sincerely, without any ulterior motives, and practices bhakti in that spirit, we can tune into that grace.”

Vrindavan is a place emanating this grace. Not only is it almost synonymous with Krishna, but neighboring Barsana was the home of Sri Radha — the supreme reservoir of love. 

The power of grace in Vrindavan

artwork by Vrindavan schoolchildren

Bhakti means to tune into grace – to Krishna’s grace which is all pervading. The path of bhakti is to access that grace by humility and devotion. Thus, we cleanse our heart through the path of bhakti

The power of grace may be the greatest power. This grace which is the extension of God’s love can heal. The grace can intervene, and bring light to where there was darkness. Even when there’s such misdirection. 

The founder of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada, said, “if one chants the names of the Lord sincerely, without any ulterior motives, and practices bhakti in that spirit, we can tune into that grace.”

Vrindavan is a place emanating this grace. Not only is it almost synonymous with Krishna, but neighboring Barsana was the home of Sri Radha — the supreme reservoir of love. 

Losing focus on the material  in Vrindavan  

deities in Vrindavan, India

The word Krishna means magnet, and all attractive. In our real world, everyone seems to be looking for pleasure and trying to avoid suffering and pain. Have you ever seen anyone that didn’t want to be satisfied? Some seek satisfaction through clothing. Others, with music. There are many different material ways that people seek satisfaction. But these are temporary.  

The most obvious things, we don’t recognize because we’re distracted.  Petty things. All the little things like fish in our lives could elate us. The big fish is the higher purpose of life. When leaders are consumed with all these petty things that never bring satisfaction to the heart. 

In the scriptures Krishna says “I am the primary manifestation of nature.” Krishna controls time and teaches us to remember him in eternal forms such as the sun and the moon. In reality, everything is eternal. Which is summed up when Krishna says “I am.” 

Human beings are not meant to be like computers that store data. We are not infallible memory chips. Theoretical knowledge has no true value, unless it brings realization. The purpose of knowledge is to bring wisdom. 

Nothing is material. Rather, the energy of the supreme. Just as a shadow is the absence of sun, we recognize there is a sun that causes the shadow. Likewise, to focus on the material is to forget god’s spiritual energy. We can turn that around through seva. That “selfless service” is about being in harmony with with the supreme by focusing our efforts away from ourselves or the material. That leads us to karuna, or compassion. To really care about others. Make sacrifices for others. 

Each and every one of us is limitlessly beautiful because each one of us is reflecting the dignity of our creator. We are all emanating from that same sun. Unity in diversity. 

Altar in Govardhan, India

Travels with Men in Orange #6. Vrindavan & Govardhan

Image of Srila Prabhupada in Vrindavan, India

Part Six of Journeys with Men in Orange is the last that features two monks. My group was fortunate. We literally traveled with two men in orange for much of our trip. Shyamananda Das and Chaitanya Charan Das shared their words of wisdom, in open-air classrooms. They spoke about love, religion, karma and more as we crisscrossed northern India. The last topic in this installment is about Krishna in the holiest of cities: Vrindavan and Govardhan. The images here all all from those areas as well.

Shyamananda Das and Chaitanya Charan were born and raised in India. They left behind the material world to become Vaishnava monks 30 years ago.

Chaitanya was a brilliant engineer. Nicknamed the Spiritual Scientist, he is author of 25 books. Additionally, he posts video blogs and online articles. One of his Facebook pages, for example, has 750,000 followers.

Shyamananda, is translator of many books written by ISKCON’s founder, Srila Prabhupada. Shyamananda serves as ISKCON Chowpatty temple president in Mumbai. However, he travels worldwide to lecture on spirituality. He will be in New York City in the month of May. 

Krishna in Govardhan

The word Govardhan means where cows flourish. Go refers to cows. It is the root of many common words.  Gopis (cow herd girls/milk maids), gopala or govinda (cow protector), gomukhasana (cow face pose). Vardhan means flourishing. So it’s an appropriate spot for stories about Krishna and the gopis.

Moreover, Govardhan is one of the most glorified places among Vaishnavas because of an incredible tale relating to young Krishna. Popular belief is that Krishna* protected people from a deluge by lifting the hill in Govardhan. What makes this story even more incredible is that Krishna was only seven  when this miracle took place. 

So here’s a brief summary of Krishna in Govardhan. 

Miracles are not AGAINST science. They are ABOUT it. 

Villagers were preparing for a harvest festival, and needed rain. Krishna manifested rain, but the rain god, Indra was angry with him for sending the festival to Govardhan. As a result, Indra retaliated with thunderbolts and lighting. The storms represented his anger toward Krishna. 

Kusum Sarovar, in Govardhan, India

Unnerved, young Krishna calmly lifted up the hill in Govardhan with his little finger. In effect, he formed a giant umbrella to shelter the devotees. Not only did he raise the hill high, but he kept it suspended for seven days and seven nights.

Hence, the reference to Govardhan can be an analogy to problem solving — and faith. 

“If we try to battle a problem, if we turn to prayer and connect with meditation it leads to relief and calm.  Remembrance of God is like a shock absorber. Just like the rain falling, but people were protected.  In due course, problems go away, just like the rain,” when one focuses on God.  

As the Men in Orange explain, “God is beyond the law of nature. God gives us gravity and can remove it.”

Chaitanya on his website, further discusses this story. 

“If Krishna lifted the Govardhan Hill, reductionist scientist would find is, how did Krishna find out the center of gravity to lift the Govardhan Hill. Krishna doesn’t have to find the center of gravity, because He is the source of gravity, He can make the gravity operate and He can make the gravity stop whenever he wants, but the science doesn’t accept this principle. They think that even if God exist he does not interfere with nature. Nature operates according to naturalistic or material factors.”

Krishna in Vrindavan

Kusum Sarovar, in Govardhan, India
 

The name Vrindavan, has as its root, Vrinda which is a another name for tulsi (holy basil). Today, most Americans have heard the name tulsi.  Tulsi Gabbard is the first Hindu elected to congress, and is a candidate for the 2020 presidential race. She and her sister, whose name is Vrindavan, were raised to cherish this small town in Uttar Pradesh, India. 

It is said that there are 4,000 temples in Vrindavan. Quite a bit, especially for a population of only 60,000. Of course, these temples are all sizes. From simple shrines to mega-monuments of worship that attract a large number of pilgrims and vaishnava devotees each year.

Why? First and foremost, Vrindavan is where Krishna is at home. It’s his playground. This is where he enacts his Lila (divine play/pastimes).

Baby Krishna’s Playground

We frequently identify Krishna as the little pudgy blue boy with the glistening black hair and huge loving eyes. One of the reasons why we see Krishna as a child so often, explain the monks, is so people can have different relationships with him. Certainly, Krishna is more identifiable, and even loving, when we envision him as a young child, pranks and all. He may be “all-attractive” but not intimidating. 

He even plays “dress-up,” again, possibly to help people better identify with him.  Once, at Kusum Sarovar, Krishna was disguised as a gardener. He told the gopis not to pick the flowers. Only Radha recognized him, by his hidden flute. She responded saying they were Govardhan Hill’s flowers. Krishna responded with a prank to all the gopis, and decorated Radha with garlands of flowers.

Thus, Krishna can reciprocate with each and every one according to their individual requirements. He delights in reciprocity of love, just like with his beloved cows.  His reciprocity and love is unlimited.

Krishna as Myth, or History

Altar at Ksusm Sarovar, Govardhan, Vrindavan, India

“That Krishna is historical, not mythological, has been verified by rigorous research conducted over the last several decades in several independent and concurrent sources,” cites Chaitanya Charan on his website. “Krishna is much more than a historical personality.” He’s transcendental. He is one stop shopping for all your requirements. 

Furthermore, Krishna never does anything that results in misery. Whatever is spiritual that we are seeking out, that’s in Krishna’s realm. 

Finally, Vrindavan is also a special place for these two Men in Orange, because of its relevance to their teacher, Radhanath Swami.  In 1971, the young American in search of something more was at the ancient temple in Vrindavan, Madan Mohan. He’d already met many a self-proclaimed guru. None cut the mustard until he met Srila Prabhupada. 

Radhanath Swami lived in Vrindavan with two babajis. They had no electricity. No water. As a sadhu, he walked down the mountain to beg for meager food. He slept with a stick to protect himself from a roving man-eating leopard. Radhanath Swami was fearless, because of his faith.  Radhanath Swami became a Krishna devotee at the Madan Mohan temple. Millions have caught a glimpse of the hilltop temple on the cover of his best-seller, “The Journey Home.”

The next installment of Men in Orange will be Radhanath Swami’s own words on why people should visit Vrindavan. 

  • The words Krishna and God are frequently used interchangeably. 
Embrace Spirituality with Radhanath Swami in India

Spirituality Versus Materialism. Men in Orange #5

Learning about Spirituality versus Materialism from Men in Orange

candramauli Swami talks about spirituality versus materialism in India

Yoga teaches us to detach from the material world. Of the primary yoga tenets, two focus on releasing ourselves from the ever-present materialism surrounding us. So, it was to be expected that Men in Orange* spoke about spirituality versus materialism in my recent trip to India.

Caundramauli Swami is an American monk and author of several books about the incarcerated.  He spoke to our private group about spirituality versus materialism.

“Our independence is to choose between spiritual and material,” he notes. “We are all coming from the spiritual world. We’ve chosen to leave God, and enjoy separately from God. He doesn’t interfere with your independence (or free will). In the spiritual world, there is no past or future. Everything exists now. Learn from the past. Live in the future.” 

Men in Orange, Parts 1-5, feature learnings from two other men in orange.* Shyamananda and Chaitanya Charan chose the Vaishnava monastic life 30 years ago.

Part 5 summarizes their chats on challenges that come when spirituality versus materialism is off balance. 

Stress in the Material Life

child dancing in Varanasi, India

“Many times we forgot what we signed up for.” Consider final exams at the university. Military deployment. Executives overseeing hundreds of employees. Marriage. Childbirth and child rearing.  The list could go on forever.

“There’s a gap between expectations and reality.” Unreasonable or lofty expectations in a materially-focused life lead to problems.  We are trained to push ourselves beyond the limits. Or, we feel compelled to meet someone else’s expectations. The monks refer to these unreal goals as mental gymnastics. 

For many of us, our childhood was about playtime. In the streets. No worries. Low supervision.  Nowadays, kids are groomed for perfection. They begin music lessons, or competitive sports, before they can read or write. The playfulness in physical activity, or artistic expression, is gone. The focus, too often, is to win. Or, to beat your prior record. Hence, it is no longer a release, fun, or healthy. Rather, it’s stress-inducing. Priming children for competitive nature throughout their lives.

When do you say enough is enough? Small kids may respond with a “temper tantrum.” More often than not, they sullenly follow their parents’ wishes.

Once in the adult world, we often get sucked into what we think is expected of us. Just like a child. We may have headaches. Heartaches. Nightmares. But, most of us follow like zombies on the road of materialism.

Following the Path of Your Soul 

It’s important to recognize that any path which makes you lose your self worth, is not the right path. 

“The north star always stays where it is. You need to keep your head firmly screwed on your shoulders.” One of the hardest challenges is to not be influenced by people that may bring you down into the material world. That’s why association, or sangha, is so important.  Find those that will build you up, spiritually, rather than tear you down. Plus, protect yourself from stress dumpers. These are people who constantly shed their own burdens to those around them.

“The love of the material world dries up quite fast,” states Chaitanya in his book “Science and Spirituality.” “Spirituality is not self-abnegation, it is self-fulfillment. The antidote for materialism is spirituality, which provides inner fulfillment and cures the exploitative mentality.” 

Spirituality Calls for Humility

Humility is not thinking LESS of oneself. But THINKING less of oneself.

Men dressed in traditional Indian attire, in Mumbai, with Anjali mudras

Anjali mudra is almost an icon for yoga. The mudra, or seal, places the hands together, in prayer, at the heart. The  thumbs press inward, to the heart. The remaining eight fingers point up. This mudra reflects humility. The “accusing finger” is together with the others, pointing upward toward the heavens, rather than out, or in. Not surprisingly, this is very calming to the body and mind. 

On the other hand, think of how you feel when you point your finger towards someone, like an accusation. Or, how it feels to have someone point toward you with an accusation.

In many cultures, it’s a common greeting to place the hands at the heart in prayer, and bow with respect. In India, bowing down to another’s “lotus” feet is an ultimate show of humility and respect.

The men in orange on my journey may be experts about spirituality versus materialism. Nonetheless, they exude humility — and compassion. 

“Some of the most enlightened say, ‘I am nothing.’”

The Power of Prayer — or Meditation 

Chaitanya Charan spoke about spirituality versus materialism at Govardhan, India

Mystics are not masochists. They aren’t advertising it. 

The eight branches of yoga include introspection and contemplation. Raja, Dharana and Dhyana yoga.  Nowadays, the buzzword is mindfulness. Which is not those three branches, but certainly is easy for most to practice. 

Our life in the world is like a garden with flowers in full bloom. Time acts like a machete. It cuts the whole picture, and there’s lamentation. Nature affords you the luxury of oneness. You can forget your petty problems and appreciate the universe.  

You may not be able to solve someone’s issues, but you can certainly address how to respond to your own.  Focusing on problems, only enlarges the problem. The more we think about problems, the more we feel helpless. Powerless.  

“If we turn to prayer, and connect with meditation, it leads to relief and calm. Don’t tell God how big your problems are. Tell your problems how big God is. When faced with problems, rather than focus on the problem, focus on God. Remembrance of God is like a shock absorber. In due course, (with mind on God), problems go away, just like the rain.”

“God is beyond the law of nature. God gives us gravity and can remove it.”

Chaitanya Charan in Mathura, India

Men in Orange #4: Man vs Ape. Spirituality.

Learning about spirituality from monks in Vrindavan

If you read my last three articles, you know that I recently spent one month nurturing my spirituality in India. More than one week was spent traveling with monks. I don’t mean seeing men in orange in trains, temples, or fire ceremonies. Rather, briskly passing through airport security because I’m with the men in orange. Or, riding together in a 42-seat chartered bus at all hours of the day and night. Most importantly, visiting beautiful sites steeped in history and spirituality. And, listening to theirs learnings on topics such as love, religion and karma. So now, it’s time for reflection on man versus ape.

Man vs. Animal: Spirituality is based on discussions with Chaitanya Charan and Shyamananda Das at Govardhan Eco Village and in and around Vrindavan. Both men left the material world to become ISKCON monks more than 30 years ago. Their home base is Mumbai.

The difference between human lives and other lives

dogs in Varanasi, India

There are four basic things that all beings do.

1) Eat. 2) Sleep. 3) Mate. 4) Defend. Many believe the difference between man and animals is a rational mind. However, the monks disagree.

“Animals sometimes behave in a much more rational way than humans.” 

Spirituality. The difference between man and monkey.

Why do humans overeat, or drink, to the point of short-term or chronic sickness? Cats won’t eat when they’re sick. Humans do. 

For a long time, tobacco companies were pushing their products, hiding evidence that cigarettes kill. 

Now, with danger warnings plastered all over the boxes and cartons, humans still choose to smoke. And, smoking is a more benevolent form of addiction than some. The types of addictions evolve with time*.  And cultures. Consider meth-amphetamine, glue, or behavior addictions like gambling or sex.  Aren’t these all forms of irrational self-harm? 

“We not only have developed a thinking faculty, but an emotional faculty, that may work against us.” 

Rationale is making the best decision for all, including yourself.

elephant at Wildlife SOS in Mathura, India

Man is destroying the planet, for material desires. That is not rational.

In many tribes of the Amazon, people had an understanding. “Every tree is for our benefit. Now, suddenly they’re giving contracts to lumber companies.” Culturally, things keep on changing, and rationale is material rather than making the best decision for all.

In Chaitanya Charan’s book, “Science and Spirituality,” he ponders, “how does an intelligent human being embark on such a destructive course?” 

Our society is going downhill in the guise of modernization and advancement. Technology may make life easier in so many ways, but on a macro level, it’s destroying our civilization. 

“Instead of simple living and high thinking, people are simply living and hardly thinking.”

In “Science and Spirituality,” Chaitanya Charan talks about the wisdom of the traditional Vedic culture and society. 

“Vedic culture was based on the implicit understanding that human happiness came not by external aggrandizement meant to satisfy one’s lust, anger and greed, but by inner realization that gradually freed one from these internal enemies. Life in Vedic times was not a rat race for wealth.” Rather it was based on spirituality…”the social environment provided abundant facilities and encouragement for one to develop oneself spiritually and find happiness within.”

Spirituality: the Difference Between Man and Monkey 

monkeys in India. Man vs ape

One of the hallmarks of spirituality is more cooperation and less competition.” But, there’s no scope for being lazy here. A spiritually adept person asks for strength to do what’s needed.

Self realized means your human form of life gives you the fullest benefits. That is, the fullest potential of your human life is achieved.

“The sun can be giving its rays, but we are living in a cave. All we need to do is stop hiding in the cave. Once you’re out, you don’t need a candle or flashlight to see where the sun is.”

Basically, that’s the essence of self realization. Take off the blinders.

Use spirituality to see oneself.

There is a story of a Chinese king who dreamt of being a butterfly, our monks relate. He questioned, ‘Am I a butterfly dreaming about being a king, or a king dreaming about being a butterfly?’ 

Radhanath Swami, of whom both monks are disciples, reminds one to distinguish between reality and illusion. Illusion is temporary. Furthermore, a guru can help you to distinguish between illusion and reality. 

To improve these things, only, doesn’t give you a spiritual life. “Miracles do happen, provided we have the eyes to see.” 

That search, whether it be for drugs or self-realization are all about trying to feel better. 

Chaitanya Charan in Mathura, India

Thus, the monks suggest that the greatest books are about a protagonist seeking something.

In Radhanath Swami’s autobiography, “The Journey Home,” he talks about that search. His story could be called “Indiana Jones and the Journey of Radhanath Swami.” It chronicles what happens when a typical American kid hitchhikes across the world, penniless, searching for wisdom. Destination: India. Along the way, he met many a self-proclaimed “guru.” Farses.

“When you meet a real spiritual teacher, it’s like seeing through high res glasses.” That came about for Radhanath Swami when he met Srila Prabhupad, the founder of ISKCON. 

Finally, Chaitanya, for his part, was on that same path. Searching for spirituality. He reflects on that search in his book “Science and Spirituality.” “The struggle to reconcile the lofty ideals that I cherished with the lousy reality that I observed around me prompted me to turn to spirituality for answers…my scientific instincts made me look at spirituality with a healthy dose of skepticism.” Like Radhanath Swami, he found answers in the teachings of Srila Prabhupad. “I knew at that moment that my life would never be the same again: the scientist within me had discovered the spiritual dimension.”

*According to the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and World Health Organization (WHO), it’s estimated that globally, around 164 million people had an alcohol or drug use disorder in 2016. And, in 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a public emergency.