Category Archives: Sutras & Ahimsa

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.

Puja ceremony in Varanasi, India

In India with Men in Orange — Part 3: Karma

caution: road work traffic sign

When you take your driver license test, or renewal, in the United States, you may be asked what the color orange means. Caution. Possible dangers ahead. Construction.

For many in the spiritual world, orange can have similar meaning. Caution, and beware of possible dangers i.e. maya (illusion) and ego. The construction, however, can equate to a never ending search for self realization, selflessness and dedication to a higher being. 

Men in Orange Explain Karma

During my recent travels in India we spent a lot of time with men in orange. Most noteworthy were two monks that traveled with us from Mumbai to Delhi, to Vrindavan, Mathura, Agra, Govardhan and back beyond Mumbai to the Govardhan Eco Village.  Like driving in unknown territory, without GPS, they steered us to better understand some of the simplest, yet most complicated, things in life like love and religion. Another topic they focused way be simple for some cultures, and difficult for others (like Westerners’), to understand. 

Caution road sign: Curves

The two men in orange leading us through the construction zone on our sacred journey were Shyamananda Das and Chaitanya Charan. Both men grew up in India and chose the monastic Vaishnava life as young adults. Chaitanya was a top ranked telecommunications engineering student. Nicknamed the Spiritual Scientist, he’s authored 25 books and has 750,000 followers on one of his facebook pages. For his part, Shyamananda has translated dozens of spiritual books to Marathi, a language spoken by 71 million people in India and beyond. Additionally, he’s a frequent contributor to Back to Godhead, the magazine of the Hare Krishna Movement.

The following are synopses of one of their discussions on the laws of karma.

Karma Can Be Empowering

Karma “helps us put destiny in our own hands. We have a vital role to play that includes acceptance and confidence,” explains Chaitanya Charan.

Caution sign: laws of karma explained

Karma, at one level, is individual. But we live in an interconnected world. Therefore, what others do affects us. Likewise, what we do affects others. Everyone is responsible for their actions. The more you share, the more you are given. 

Don’t shoot the messenger. Enrich yourself. Open your mindset. We have free will. We are the makers of our destiny, but not the masters of our destiny. Many are still fighting battles that are already lost or beyond their control such as a handicap. But the response is within our control. Luck is a name people give to hard work. Meanwhile, stress, or being stuck living in the past or unable to release worries are emotional mortgages.

Don’t Be Angry with the Instrument of your Karma

There’s a difference between weakness and wickedness. All of us have weakness. On the other hand, wickedness involves cold-blooded action.  For some, intelligence becomes a slave to the lower self, using intelligence to do wrong and cover tracks. Another way to think of it is how the mind can have a short term impulse (which can result in wickedness or weakness) versus long term intelligence which can redirect your karma.

The human spirit is always reformative. The door to change is from inside.  Desire to change has to begin with acknowledgement of wrong doing.

If you look at nature, beauty and brutality exist side by side. Benevolence of the universe is our positive karma. The universe at one level is neutral. But God cares for us and brings good. God gives us gravity, and can remove it. 

God is Beyond the Law of Nature

Puja ceremony in Varanasi, India

Miracles do happen provided we have the eyes to see. We need to stop hiding in our caves. Once you’re out, you don’t need a candle or flashlight to see where the sun is. When we use our spirituality, we can become enlightened, as if the sun’s rays are shining in our path.

There are people called stress dumpers, one of our monks explains. “They have a never ending supply of stress.”

Any path which makes you lose your self worth, is not intended. The North Star always stays where it is. You need to keep your head firmly screwed on your shoulders.

Priest in Varanasi, India

But, you don’t need to absorb what they’re throwing off. Just because somebody’s doing that to you, you don’t need to take that. How much can you take, and when do you say enough is enough?

In many tribes of the Amazon, they had an understanding that every tree is for our benefit. Now, suddenly they’re giving contracts to lumber companies. Culturally, things keep on changing. So karma will have to come into play. 

For many creatures in the jungle, the best defense is to play dead. There is no cure for why something happened to you. But, being a victim today, does not mean that one will be a perpetrator tomorrow. 

Sometimes, something feels so wrong, that we can’t accept that it was God’s doing. These are instances when we have to recognize karma’s role.  

We may ask, “Why would God destroy something good?” Whether it be a force of nature, or war or another form of tragedy.

God’s Mercy is Greater than His Justice

Sometimes, strong punishments can serve as deterrents. For example, since India and Pakistan have each had nuclear weapon arsenals, there has been no major war between the two countries. 

In Vedic tradition, kings at times would resort to capital punishment. A king would recommend capital punishment to square up a criminal’s karma. The rationale was that the kings had to train people choose positive over evil. 

Maybe that’s why vigilante movies are so popular. They touch a nerve. Karma in action. Recognizing that every good, or bad, deed goes into your account. On the other hand, sometimes, doing good gets us into trouble. But, we get a deeper experience. So, positive karma is still on our side.

Every Saint Had a Past and Every Sinner Has a Future

In today’s world, when a crime is committed there are three victims. First, the victim. Second,  the victimizer. Third, is our society or community.

We must understand, everything, good and bad, are part of life. Nothing that Krishna does leads to misery, but if we try too hard to enjoy something, even as innocuous as eating too many ice cream cones, we will feel misery.

Finally, another man in orange on my journey, Indrayumna Swami, works with the incarcerated. Author of “The Holy Jail” and “The Forbidden Voices,” he says peoples’ karmas can be changed. “It’s a wonderful way to reach the hearts of people that are considered persona non grata. They can start to relate to other people more. It’s transformed them inside and outside. Karma is very difficult. No one is born with a clean slate. But in the spiritual world, there is no past or future. Just present. Learn from the past. Live in the future.” 

travels to india with men in orange " Vrindavan

Travels to India with Men in Orange- Part 2

travels to india with men in orange " Vrindavan

It’s not the color of your juice. Nor the rays of a setting sun. This muted orange is called saffron.

My travels to India with men in saffron, revolved around Radhanath Swami, about whom I’ve written before.

Originally from a Chicago suburb, Richard (his birth name) left the States after his freshman year in college to find his dharma. He ended up in India. In an orange robe. 

The Importance of Orange

According to Radhanath Swami, saffron represents the principle of purity and renunciation. “It is like a flag. You are representing your guru. It is a great responsibility. We should always be aware of who we are representing and we should always be very, very, very careful… and that pressure of awareness is very helpful for us to be on guard against maya.” 

travels to india with men in orange in Mathura

My recent travels to India included ample time with Radhanath Swami, and his social enterprises, about which I’ll write later. However, Travels to India Part 2, is a continuation of learnings shared by two disciples of Radhanath Swami, with whom I traveled for more than a week. It was important to spend time with men in orange. Shivani Agarwal, a student of Radhanath Swami, explained that a traveler on the road to spirituality must learn from a master. “A holy place has to be seen through ears. Otherwise, a visit to these places is reduced to a picnic spot. This is an important aspect of spirituality, and also the reason why we added classes with these monks.”

Shyamananda Das and Chaitanya Charan each became monks about three decades ago. They may be renunciates, but they are fully in touch with worldwide current events, public opinion, and modern technology. So much so that Chaitanya has 750,000 followers on one facebook page alone. Meanwhile, Shyamananda feels the pulse of society by lecturing at yoga centers around the world. He’ll be in New York City, for two months, this summer.  

Travels to India: Agra Fort

Part 2 of Travels to India with Men in Orange are excerpts from an open-air classroom, at dusk, at Agra Fort. The topic: love.

Learning About Love From Monks on Travels to India

travels to india: Taj Mahal

A mogul ruler, Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal in memory of one of his wives.  Mumtaz died following the birth of her 14th child. As a supposed display of love, Shah Jahan ordered the construction of this over-the-top marble 170,000-square-foot complex. Despite the crew of 20,000 workers from India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and Europe, plus 1,000 elephants, it took 17 years to complete the project. Thus, the Taj Mahal (in my eyes) is an obscene display of inequality, abuse of wealth, and power. Not love.

Too many of us seek love in a material way, because that’s all we can touch, see or comprehend.

It’s the intrinsic nature of life to avoid pain. That’s life. That’s the reality and the motivating force for everything and anything. But there’s only one thing that satisfies the soul.

To Love and Be Loved 

Free will has no meaning without love. But, what is true love?

Chaitanya Charan beautifully expresses on his website“True love begins with a clear understanding of our spiritual identity. The Bhagavad-gita describes that we are spiritual beings, beloved parts of the Supreme All-Attractive Being, Krishna*. In our pure state, we innately love Krishna and delight eternally in that eternal love. When Krishna – the source and pivot of all love – is at the center of our heart and life, then we naturally love all living beings, for we see them as beloved children of our Lord. When our relationships are thus divinely-centered, then we can relish and share true love.”

In divinity, exploitation is replaced by love. Krishna allows himself to be loved when we are completely free of arrogance.

When You Love God it Includes Everything

The purpose of our existence is to show love to God. When you love Krishna, you love everyone. Just like when you pour water on the roots of a tree, it extends to the leaves and branches. Everything is the energy of Krishna.

To exemplify that, on my travels to India we visited the first temple built in the holy city of Vrindavan, Madhan Mohan (top picture). Our monks call this a spiritual wifi hot spot. The word madhan means cupid, or the God of love.  Mohan is the one who attracts, such as a captivator or mesmerizer. At this temple, Cupid tried to capture Krishna. But alas. It didn’t work. Rather, Krishna attracted Cupid. One explanation is that Krishna reciprocates, or reflects, as is the case with Cupid and this reversed arrow. Krishna delights in the reciprocity of love.

Baby Krishna with butter, Mathura, India

We are taught that God is not loved, but a lover, in Krishna’s playground (Vrindavan).  Krishna can be our very best friend, child or lover. 

To put this in perspective, consider familial love. Generally, a daughter or son is expecting things from their parents. However, a mother’s love is so pure. She expects nothing from her child. Just as a child needs things from the parent, people tend to pray to God for what they may find lacking.

In Chaitanya’s book, “Science and Spirituality,” he states, “Love of God is our original and real nature, but due to prolonged and excessive contact with mater, it has become completely obscured and is now misdirected towards various objects. All genuine spiritual practices are meant to revive this love of God which is presently dormant in our hearts…a heart that does not love is profoundly empty. And an empty heart makes for a dry life, bereft of purpose and will.”

Pure Love is Like Searching for a Pot of Gold

For some, that search for the pot of gold is similar to the search for a true guru. Be sure it’s 24-karat rather than gold-plated.  When you hit gold, with a real spiritual teacher, it’s like seeing through high res glasses. Suddenly you can distinguish between illusion and reality. There is true friendship, and true love. 

Next installment of Travels to India with Men in Orange: Karma.

*The Vedas talk about the thousands of names for the lord. In these talks during my travels to India with Men in Orange, the names Krishna and God are used interchangeably.  

ISKCON monks, Chaitanya Charan and Shyamananda in Vrindavan, India

Journeys in India with Men in Orange

monk in Vrindavan, India

Let it be known, I have a short attention span. Think :60 sound bytes or max five-minute comedy schticks. My body needs to move frequently. I can walk for eight to ten hours and feel great. But sit me down to listen to a talking head, even as part of my journey to India, and I can zone out like a six-year-old.  

So, shortly before take off from the Austin airport, I opened a What’sApp message that said classes with monks now part of my EMBRACE THE GRACE: SACRED JOURNEY TO DIVINE INDIA tour. My instant reaction was “snooze alert.” And, no clicker to turn it off. 

Men in orange.

We’re not talking the traffic cop or crossing guard orange.

Think orange after years of sun bleaching.

A muted blend of red and yellow.  Saffron to be precise.

The colors Buddhist and Hindu renunciates don, who opt for simplicity in life. Celibacy. Detachment. 

In lieu of physical desires for people or things, they focus on love for a higher being. A spiritual life.

Focus on learning, and/or teaching. Those treasures that can’t be kept in a bank account or safe. But, they can be shared among all who open their minds. 

Journey to India, 2019

Two orange-clad spiritual luminaries were on the road with us for more than a week. Reason being, “A holy place has to be seen through ears,” according to trip leader Shivani Agarwal.  “This is an important aspect of spirituality. Otherwise, a visit to these places is reduced to a picnic spot. Their significance and relevance can only be understood if we get education by those who have understood their significance and relevance. This is how knowledge is transmitted.”

ISKCON monks, Chaitanya Charan and Shyamananda in Vrindavan, India

Surprise. The time with the men in orange were the highlights of my journey to India.

Shyamananda Das and Chaitanya Charan were born and raised in India. They each chose the monastic Vaishnava life about three decades ago. Both began their adulthood with sharp inquisitive minds. Chaitanya was an engineering student who scored 2350 out of 2400 on his GREs. He worked as a software engineer before he gave up the material life. Nicknamed the Spiritual Scientist, he’s authored 25 books and has 750,000 followers on one of his facebook pages.

Shyamananda, in the meantime, translated many books authored by ISKCON’s founder, Srila Prabhupad, to Marathi. Additionally, he serves as ISKCON Chowpatty (Mumbai) temple president, and, he travels to England and the United States frequently to lecture on spirituality.

Men in Orange regarding misconceptions of religion

People are to God what sparks are to fire.

We are all parts of God. All equal but not identical. 

At a spiritual level, we are all the same. 

All religions lead to the same God

Disagreements on religion have been the source of strife for eons.

If religion is supposed to be such a beautiful part of one’s life, then why are so many mistreated —and murdered— in the name of religion?

Ignorance…Ego…The list can go on and on.

Religion should be a personal choice.

We all can choose options for our own spiritual journal. One is not a better approach than another. Mine is not right, and yours is not wrong.

Jim may have set beliefs as a teen, and they evolve when he becomes a father, and then he may experience an about face when he retires. 

Temples used to be for wisdom and spiritual healing, not unlike today’s hospitals and schools.

Regardless, we can still seek that higher ground.

In fact, as we evolve spiritually, our choices become wiser, no matter what lineage we may select. 

Journey to the top–only one mountain to climb

The base of the mountain is expansive, almost infinite. Yet the top is simple and clearly visible from so many different angles. Hence, the climb up has infinite possibilities. After the long trek up, everyone’s view is the same. The same holds true for the spiritual journey. The view from the top, of the supreme being, varies little. Regardless the religion, language or the name, the creator has much the same qualities.

Breaking it down etymologically we see more similarities. The name Allah means “the Being who comprises all the attributes of perfection.” Brahman, is the “source of everything,” and Yahweh is “to exist or to be.” Meanwhile, El Shaddai is the “all powerful or mighty one,” and the word Krishna means “all-attractive.”

None of these names are saying, “the only one,” or, “the master,” The word Krishna, clearly, has nothing to do with sectarianism. And, you could argue the same for other names of the Lord. 

God is not material

Religions have created images to personify their God, not unlike a flag as a symbol of one’s country. People salute their flag just as they may bow down to their God. We pay respect to the image to make it more tangible.

Chaitanya explains, “When we think of God’s form, we subconsciously project our conceptions of matter on the form of God and so think that a form would limit God. But God is not material; he is entirely spiritual. Spirit has characteristics different from matter; that which is spiritual has the potential to be unlimited, irrespective of whether it has form or not. So God’s form being spiritual does not limit him.”

What is God’s form? Gender is about biology.  But, if God has no body, how can we assign gender?

Krishna mural in Vrindavan, India

We are told that God appeared as Krishna in Vrindavan. This image may have been male, but the God as depicted in the Vedic scriptures represents masculine and feminine. There is no question of superiority between male and female.  Krishna and Radha were originally one person. Hence, God can be manifest as a loving couple. Yet, interestingly enough, the feminine is mentioned first, i.e., Sita Ram or Radha Krishna. Taking it further, in Vrindavan and Barsana, India, it’s common for people to greet one another with “Radhey Radhey!”

This is because we worship Radha more than Krishna. “Radha controls Krishna. Therefore, she is the controller of God,” like the sun versus sunshine, say the monks.  “Man cannot be apart from woman. They must complement versus compete with one another.”

Speaking of the men and women, stay tuned for the next installment of Journey to India with Men in Orange. Topic: Love.

Sharing Kirtan Practice — in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is  the go-to place for yogis. There are dedicated yoga centers popping up everywhere. Every day of the year, yogis flock here to get centered and grounded. Now, bhakta yogis can find their sangha and relish their kirtan practice in Costa Rica. 

Set in an eco-hotel by the University of Costa Rica, five kirtan leaders representing a good cross section of devotional music were on the stage at the second annual Kirtan Fest Costa Rica.  

Kirtan Artists Reflect Diversity

Camilo Poltronierialejandra late at Kirtan Fest Costa Rica, a one-man-orchestra, opened up the evening. A French musician living in Uvita, Costa Rica, he layered authentic tribal and traditional instruments with digital beats and electronic sounds of nature. Next was Radha Kanti Didi. A Costa Rican who leads kirtan all over the world,  she shared a traditional Vaishnava/Krishna set with two mridanga players, a huge pair of kartals and a mini gong.  Alejandra Ulate, dressed in Kundalini whites, provided balance to the ecstatic chanting. She played harmonium accompanied by a flute player. Alejandra combined traditional Sanskrit mantras with Spanish lyrics for her sing-a-longs. Ensamble Mantrika was next. A couple led call and response with their Latin folk styled ukeleles. 

Ensemble Mantrika at Kirtan Fest Costa Rica

Closing out the night were the co-organizers: Gabriel Wiernick on guitar, and Analú Fariña on harmonium. They led chants including Sa Ta Na Ma, Sita Ram, Saamba Sada Shiva and a Tibetan tune, Tayatha Om Bekandze.

After a spiritually charged five hours, attendees left filled with positive energy. Impacted. Sound body mind and soul. Regardless of their past experience, if any, with kirtan, they left feeling chill.

The Birth of Kirtan Fest Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s Kirtan Fest was the brainchild of Ana Lucía Fariña. Founder of Pranaluz Conscious Living, she offers classes, workshops, coaching and retreats. Plus, conscious yoga travel vacations around the world. 

Analú as she’s known, had been involved with music festivals in other countries. Then, she was a kirtan leader at Bali Spirit Festival. In fact, she was living in Bali when she felt the time was right to share kirtan in Costa Rica, and build community. She couldn’t do it alone, or from Bali. So, she recruited Gabriel Wiernick in San Jose. 

Gabriel Wiernik at Kirtan Fest Costa Rica

A talented musician who studied at Berkeley Music School, Gabriel is also a yogi. He has a penchant for meditative and instrumental music, and kirtan.  As a composer and producer, he had worked with diverse yogis and Kirtanis. More importantly, says Analú, “He is passionate to share the gift of Kirtan to all.”

Analú also enlisted her brother, a sound and light technician, and other Costa Rican kirtan leaders.

Developing Her Own Kirtan Practice

Hailing from a family of musicians, Analú got the Kirtan bug early in her yogic life. Nontheless, she needed to nurture her kirtan practice.developing a kirtan practice

“Kirtan is my personal practice. If I could do one thing and live solely from that, it would be kirtan. For my final (teacher training) classes, I just felt all I really wanted to do was chant – not teach any asana. I feel each individual has a unique way to connect with divinity, mine is through a vibrational experience.” She explained, “I see and perceive life in vibrations. Everything is sound and light. Bhakti yoga for me is my practice from heart to heart, a vibrational therapy of love, and devotion. My intention is to be an instrument of service, and instrument of love. A channel to which people can experience and vibrate in the frequency of love, the frequency of divinity. This is Kirtan to me. I feel a deep calling to share it with others as well.”

While Analú was naturally drawn to kirtan, she sought to deepen her kirtan practice. “Fascinated by mantras and yoga chanting music, I would chant sometimes during my asana classes with guitar. I remember going to see Wah and Snatam Kaur. Tears were falling from my eyes from the love and devotion I experienced.  I remember asking them personally, ‘How did you start doing this?’”

In India, her Kirtan practice solidified. “At that point I fell in love with Bhakti. I didn’t play formally, but I remember living in Paris with no job nor work visa. I would sit on the streets along with other musicians and chant mantras.” She returned to India in 2015 to study and practice with teachers and kirtanis there. “When I moved to Bali in 2016, I became friends with a great kirtani there who invited me often to play in Ubud. Suddenly, it just started to flow from all my heart. Since then, I have been doing mostly full moon kirtans, every month. I include kirtan practice in classes, retreats and offer a strong emphasis of Bhakti during the yoga teacher trainings I offer.”  

Kirtan Practice Takes You Beyond Bodywork

altar at Kirtan fest Costa Rica“In the West, in general, yoga is seen as solely a physical practice, or an exercise to gain strength, become fit, or flexible. The full eight limbs of yoga are surely not always taught. Even solely in asana classes per se, I perceive definitely a strong emphasis on form and flexibility rather than understanding the pure intention of asana which according to Patanjali is to ‘cease the fluctuations of the mind’ and its biomechanics (the movement and intention of prana in the body). I know people are working towards meditation and mindfulness in Costa Rica. There are many teachers introducing it to students. Yet, I feel it is challenging to find teachers who embrace, teach and share the eight limbs of yoga. That is one of my personal missions.”

Precisely. That’s one of the beauties of kirtan practice. Attendees embrace the vibrations. The vocals. The instrumentals. There is no competition. As Radha Kanti Didi explained, it’s all about heartfelt joy, and love of the divine, through chanting.

Analú adds, “Everywhere I have been there is always a wide palate of yogis. Those who are just living spiritual materialism, those who dive deep into the studies, those who talk about it not walk, those pure and loving sharing from a place of heart.  That is the beauty of life: variety. Some students will resonate more with just asana, a specific practice, or a certain teacher. We have individual paths. One way or another, we will be where we have to be, learn what we have to learn, and evolve from where we are at that specific moment.”

Finally, Analú shares a special quote from Nicola Tesla. 

 If you wish to understand the universe, think of energy, frequency and vibration.

“This is Brahman. This is God. This is Energy. The ‘source.’  Kirtan is an instrument that allows us to not only feel or perceive, but experience this.  Experience God.”

Read more about kirtan and the power of sound