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Reading the preceding blogs in this series, a young monk apprentice emailed me:
"I am writing to you seeking guidance. I just read your latest article on your website, and devotees are also discussing it on Facebook. It really made me think deeply. Honestly I feel discouraged, and my mind is afflicted by doubts. Especially for a person in my situation, staying in place where there is a lack of serious, purpose built and purpose driven men's ashrams'.
"So my question is, is it necessary for me being in saffron? Knowing well that there's no support and constant motivation for us brahmacharis in [country withheld]. Your article made me realise that I would actually do good as an upstanding bachelor or grihasta than always being frustrated by the lack of critical elements of 'leadership, camaraderie, facility, and training'. Oh Gurudev, I am in total darkness, falling at your lotus feet and praying to you for guidance."
What can I say. Experience has firmly convinced me that men in the brahmachari ashram should undergo only one category of pressure, with two subdivisions. Totally nothing from the outside. All the urging should emanate from within the candidate--first, to get in and, second, to stay in. This policy, followed by progressive ashrams in the world, reverses the social practices in earlier, beta versions of ISKCON.
An updated ISKCON, version 2.0, would approach ashram choice this way: a man contemplating entering monastic training has to solidly convince the saffron leaders that he is making a decision founded upon complete awareness of both what brahmachari life entails and what it will do for his future. Where I am involved, I generally give a prospective candidate a long look, intoning slowly, "Are you sure you know what you are getting into? Are you prepared for at least a few years' lifestyle of just humble, selfless bhakti--serving, chanting, reading, and kirtan, in a communal setting of simple living? Is this (the sweet nectar) your strong desire?" Of course, a genuine brahmachari ashram radiates attractiveness--its pristine atmosphere sells itself, to those inclined.
Once a man joins the saffron set, then no automatic, revolving enrollments. The ashram leaders and mentors should conduct annual or bi-annual reviews, in which everyone's file is lovingly up for reflection and review. The ashram staff is duty- and love-bound to ensure that no one over-estimates his capacity, straining to be someone he is not, in a placement that no longer works for his balanced development in bhakti.
Needless to say, a monk apprenticeship is not every man's cup of herb tea. Though sincerely considering it, individuals in some circumstances would best choose another bhakti lifestyle. No bar to becoming Krishna conscious, some of these situations entail:
Recently, somewhere in the ISKCON world, in the southern hemisphere, a monk apprentice suddenly, without a word, departed the ashram for full material life, and then astonished his comrades by launching an Internet campaign of, shall we say, creative writing, depicting his brahmachari years as emotionally coerced suffering. Later he revealed to a lady devotee that prior to his devotee years, his gender inclinations had been elastic. Commonplace today, gender variables are no barrier to a bhakti practice, at home. An ashram, however, is a special niche. The brahmachari comrades of this former monk apprentice, still deeply valuing this person, were saddened more by the unnecessary stress and pain their friend had inflicted upon himself, than by the glaring lack of disclosure and interpersonal honesty. Hiding and bottling up such significant psycho-physical tendencies for some years popped the cork in such a regrettable and immature manner.
Social statistics reveal the social realities in the West: ferocious, delirious, frantic, and deranged. Now India wants in, on a fast track to human disaster. Srila Prabhupada appropriately sums up the status quo (Bhag 1.1.10):
". . . so many sinful acts are being carried on that the people in general have neither peace of mind nor health of body. The student (brahmachari) communities are no longer being maintained, and householders do not observe the rules and regulations of the grihastha-ashram. In the Kali-yuga the whole atmosphere is surcharged with faithlessness. Men are no longer interested in spiritual values. Material sense gratification is now the standard of civilization. For the maintenance of such material civilizations, man has formed complex nations and communities, and there is a constant strain of hot and cold wars between these different groups. It has become very difficult, therefore, to raise the spiritual standard due to the present distorted values of human society. The sages of Naimisaranya are anxious to disentangle all fallen souls, and here they are seeking the remedy from Srila Suta Goswami."
Constructing a model for a genuine human society is a monumental task. Following the path of our spiritual predecessors, we seek their mercy and strength.
In a spiritually progressive Vaishnava community, everyone profits from a genuine program of monk apprenticeship, the brahmachari ashram. The men participating receive a solid foundation in sense control and discipline, in pursuance of scriptural study and its application. Necessary social advantages in a spiritual society, such as cooperation and voluntary selfless service, predominate. And of course, wouldn't it be nice that men at least learn courtesy, sensitivity, and good manners?
Knowledge and the distribution of knowledge is the hallmark of a man properly situated in the ashram. Needless to say, in ISKCON version 2.0, appropriating the monk manpower for a fund-rasing concentration is taboo, . The brahmachari ashram gives the man a "once in a lifetime" opportunity for substantial immersion in the sacred texts, their assimilation, and their distribution. "Love to read Srila Prabhupada's books, and love to distribute them, one way or another" is the motto. Striving to communicate effectively the timeless message of bhakti-yoga, according to the current world context, taxes the brain of the savvy and compassionate brahmachari. Especially outreach work at universities, so demanding of patience and determination, expands both the material and spiritual skill-set of the monk apprentice.
Bhakti is "the kitchen religion." Moreover, often it is said: "Just as women like to talk, men like to eat." The ashram serves as probably the only place these days where a Western male practitioner of bhakti can acquire sensational cooking abilities that will, regardless of his future choices, aid him lifelong. The tongue is the most powerful sense, and certainly--both in the ashram and out--tasty prasad rocks and rules. Lovingly prepared "monk food," saturated with bhakti, captures the sensory world of the cultivated.
Why keep the brahmacharis locked up, cloistered? For cultivating everyone except single ladies, a genuine monk apprentice is a strikingly impressive person--a gallant yet humble hero, as he circulates among guests and contacts who appreciate spiritual culture and integrity. Although the Western world has long discarded it--and the new India, lamentably, is racing to catch up--fundamental integrity is a prerequisite for a good and just human society. Brahmacharis and their abode should radiate this spiritual jewel.
"Who me--marry a former brahmachari?" Whether in the material or the ISKCON society, ladies know it's so hard these days to find a good man. Pulverized and vulgarized by today's hedonistic overload, men have lost their backbone, their stamina, their reliability. Indeed, racking up the hits in the girl-getting game, stripped of sober intelligence and fortitude, men have lost their very self. Lady devotees, please meditate upon Prabhupada's statement that the brahmachari ashram is the best training for both those renunciant candidates who remain lifelong as well as for those who choose to graduate. "Especially meant for training both the attached and the detached," the genuine program of monk apprenticeship generates an important and socially attractive by-product. It benefits Vaishnavis as a lucrative wellspring of future marriage candidates--that is, for the discriminating lady who has on her mind steady progress back to Godhead.
Obviously, outside of India, statistics show that a significant number of brahmacharis will eventually choose to marry. Lucky is the lady who gets a man who has practiced sense control, even at least for some years. A solid assurance that a potential husband will be Krishna conscious in the future is the time he has spent as an authentic, progressive brahmachari in the past. Realistically speaking, even if after marriage such a man dips in his practice, generally after some time, he'll eventually re-stabilize himself, remembering the sweet taste for bhakti knowledge and its practice, so heartily experienced during his apprenticeship days. Difficult it is, no doubt, to revive something never acquired.
The entire ISKCON devotional community can feel pride in a real brahmachari ashram. Householders, the vast majority in ISKCON, want to see monk apprentices who are industrious, competent, hard-working, morally upright, and psychologically wholesome. No one benefits from the negative: lazy, goal-less, irresponsible men, who seem to loiter in the ashram just to escape getting on with their life. "I don't want to get married now, and I don't want to work, so I think I'll be a brahmachari . . . ." That rationale won't get a man far, in a genuine ashram. Actually, that mindset should never even enter the ashram, from the onset. More on this later, in Part 3.
For progressive human beings, the classic Vedic social and occupational system designates at least the first part of a man's life for training as a celibate student, a monk in training, a brahmachari. When human society still had some notion of virtue, integrity, and sense-control, the social advantages for the entire human population were quite obvious. Srila Prabhupada gives a succinct overview in a Bhagavatam purport:
"The main purpose of ashrama-dharma is to awaken knowledge and detachment. The brahmachari asrama is the training ground for the prospective candidates. In this ashrama it is instructed that this material world is not actually the home of the living being. The conditioned souls under material bondage are prisoners of matter, and therefore self-realization is the ultimate aim of life. The whole system of ashrama-dharma is a means to detachment. One who fails to assimilate this spirit of detachment is allowed to enter into family life with the same spirit of detachment. Therefore, one who attains detachment may at once adopt the fourth order, namely, renounced, and thus live on charity only, not to accumulate wealth, but just to keep body and soul together for ultimate realization. Household life is for one who is attached, and the vanaprastha and sannyasa orders of life are for those who are detached from material life. The brahmachari-asrama is especially meant for training both the attached and detached." (S. bhag. 1:9:26)
In Part 2 we'll get back to that last statement, about the best training for all men, but for now let's think about the Wild West, where civilization would be a good idea. Is brahmachari life possible, outside of India? Is a concentrated program for men's walking the talk that the material world is not our home feasible in this century? Looking at the number of real brahmachari ashrams in Western ISKCON, one certainly has grounds for doubts. I'm not speaking of temples where a young man happens along who gets it in his head to "move in" or "join up," and then immediately he's clad in saffron, assigned a spot somewhere in the building, where he can fend for himself--until he becomes frustrated and leaves, to the wider congregation, or to marry, or to go away entirely.
For example, in all of the USA and Canada, where ISKCON has been established from its beginning in the sixties, now you can easily count the number of serious, dedicated brahmachari operations on just one hand. Down-under, where the distances are huge and the population small, you'd find two. Indeed, outside of India, brahmacharis in ISKCON have made it onto the list of endangered species. The social environment of the West during the past decades didn't help. Consider the intense careerism and the drive for money--that is, before the Great Recession hit--and the tsunami of wanton sensuality, especially the destructive lifestyles of the party, club, and drug scene so essential to contemporary urban life. Combine these woes with the reality that most ISKCON temples in the West have been unable to offer genuine brahmachari training for quite some time, and you can see the result at Sunday gatherings: a speck of saffron at best, amidst a sea of white kurtas, multi-colored saris, and conventional western attire.
Let us recall the original purpose of the classic Vedic social and occupational system. Revisiting the same Bhagavatam purport, we may note: "to accelerate transcendental qualities of the individual person so that he may gradually realize his spiritual identity and thus act accordingly to get free from material bondage, or conditional life." Brahmachari life is a highly focused career-calling, an accelerated intensive for attaining freedom from material existence. Unimpeded by the normal material priorities, pursuits, and ambitions, it offers a substantial swim in the endless ocean of selfless devotional service. Chop out of life that aim, to escape material bondage and climb aboard the spiritual plane, and I agree--entering brahmachari life makes no sense. Hence, to many Western eyes, it is incomprehensible. Last week in New Zealand a media controversy arose about a popular mega-church. At the top of the news articles, the prime controversies were paraded: a pastor pushy about getting money and who--God forbid--arranged, among his congregation, meetings for only men . . .
Sometimes even our own ISKCON devotees have difficulty grasping the contemporary importance of brahmachari life. That's understandable, I think, owing to the lack of serious, "purpose built and purpose driven" men's ashrams. Honestly, I do believe it better men live a lifestyle in the wider congregation, as an upstanding bachelor or householder, than they enter into a pseudo brahmachari situation, where--minus the critical elements of leadership, camaraderie, facility, and training--only the dye in the cloth is there to give support.
“Maharaja, we’ve arranged a program for you at Yale University,” the brahmacaris, the monks, at the Bhakti Center in Manhattan, New York City, happily informed me. My heart went thud. I hadn’t been back to my alma mater since graduation, May ’72.
One month after that ceremony of cap and gown, I discovered Srila Prabhupada’s books, and after pouring over them four hours a day, through six continuous months, in December I made my first visit to the New York temple. I became a fulltime resident there in March of ’73.
What did Mother Yale, as its flock call the institution, mean to me? I remember the rooms of conservative, straight-laced students, their walls draped with huge school banners that said,” For God, For Country, For Yale.” I never hung out with those types.
The social activists and the fancy-free were my crowd. To me, then, Yale was four years of frustration in my search for the highest knowledge, and depressing disappointment with mundane political and economic solutions to the world’s problems.
It also meant the lifestyle of a Kali-yuga student. Upon coming to Krishna consciousness, I so regretted the deep and vile ignorance of my previous years that I never wanted to see the distinctive architecture of the Yale campus again.
Now, thirty seven years later, devotees are asking me to go there, to tactfully present Lord Chaitanya’s mercy. They don’t know that to do so, I have to confront a vast lagoon of deeply buried emotional intensity: “My wasted life--why did I willfully forget Krishna and toil uselessly in material existence!”
Since beginning my bhakti endeavor, I’ve always blamed Mother Yale for the regretful nondevotee years spent on her lap and for all the illusions fed me. She certainly can obscure real knowledge and drown her nescient children in pools of sophisticated decadence. On the other hand, I do now agree that her tabernacles and citadels have the potential for truly higher education, leading to significant individual and societal transformation.
The night of the outreach program, the Manhattan devotees gleefully drove me around the campus. “Maharaja, do you remember? What dormitory did you live in? How has the campus changed?”
Yes, Mother is guilty as charged, but that night, as I reconnected, for Krishna’s service, I fully faced up to my own foul play: I had sought to enjoy and control, voluntarily embracing the endless network of maya.
Let the next chapter begin: the King of all knowledge and confidential wisdom marries Mum. Or at least they can date.
Visiting Hartford during my travels in the USA, I witnessed the amazing devotional determination and steadfastness of my Godbrother Pyari Mohan and his wife, Jivanausadhi. He started his preaching in Hartford while a brahmacari in 1981, and then a year or so later decided the grhastha ashram was most appropriate for his bhakti endeavors. The couple have staffed the Hartford center since that time, in the same building, serving the people, year after year, decade after decade. Pyari and Jiva, as they are known, push on, soon to complete their third decade as the Hartford preaching team. Meanwhile, their family has proliferated into its third generation,
The center they've maintained all this time is a large house, with a temple area, kitchen, public bathroom, and lounge on the ground floor. Upstairs, in a few small rooms, is where Pyari Mohan and his wife live, and where they have raised two children in Krishna consciousness. The daughter now has her own family and abode; the son is away at university. Simultaneously, grandfather Pyari and grandmother Jiva keep rolling on, with their selfless outreach service.
"We never took any money from temple donations for our maintenance," Pyari informed me. His wife and he were book distributors before marriage and continued that service after they became householders. When it became apparent that the proceeds from book distribution would not be enough to support a budding family, from out of the blue manifested another source of income. As a child Pyari was always interested in magic. Thinking to learn some tricks for his little daughter's birthday celebration, he sought out a magic shop. Emerging loaded with items, he wondered what had come over him--he had spent over $100.
After the birthday party, Pyari continued to develop his skills, gradually reached the level of a professional magician. "Say the magic word 'Radhe-Govinda'," he cues spellbound audiences at schools, private functions, and homes for the elderly. In the backyard behind the center, he keeps a dove and a rabbit, to aid his repertoire of tricks. His financial advice for grhastas wanting a missionary focus: "Stick to it, live simply. Krishna mysteriously arranges for your basic maintenance."
Jiva is a devastating cook--famous throughout ISKCON. Pyari humbly claims that people come to their center only because of her kitchen prowess. Praising her low-maintenance profile (and thanking Krishna for it), he told me how for their wedding anniversary he chivalrously drove her to Walmart (an American discount mega-store, equivalent down-under to Warehouse or Target)) and told her to pick out whatever she desired. Reciprocating with this gallant gesture, she replied that she wasn't interested in acquiring anything.
All glories to such a saintly and inspiring family.
At the Krishna-Balaram Temple in Vrindavan, I had finished giving Bhagavatam class, when an elderly lady devotee handed me a gift box of maha-prasada with a signed card on top. "Thank you Devamrita Maharaja. You began the movement of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Bulgaria. Only one conversation and instruction to the first Bulgarian devotee, Radhavallabha das, trained him to be the first leader. Now the Krishna consciousness movement in Bulgaria is blossoming."
This unexpected consideration touched my heart while at the same time unsealed a flood of piercing memories, from dire and dangerous Iron Curtain days. In the summer of 1978 , way out on a limb, seeking Prabhupada's mercy, another devotee and I made our first foray into Soviet shackled Bulgaria. Freshly arrived in Europe a few months earlier, I was on a determined personal quest to catch Prabhupada's attention, eight months after his departure from this world. At that time, the ISKCON temple near Frankfurt, Germany, was the base for clandestine communist country preaching. The handful of devotees in that special program would disappear from the temple for weeks at a time, our itinerary kept secret--for our own safety and for the protection of the fledgling devotees in those imprisoned countries.
Pressed to arrive in Europe from Los Angeles before summer, I had schemed how to obtain my driver's license though I was still struggling at the wheel. Especially, learning on a manual gear shift put me in fits. Automatic transmissions, though common in the USA, were rare in Europe back then, so for Krishna's service I had to persevere. Because I had never driven before, my Godbrother Yadubhara das, ISKCON's famous film-maker, kindly gave me a few crash driving lessons. But the date for my departure loomed before my driving abilities had sufficiently bloomed. To quickly dispose of the road test, I had a great idea: Yadubhara would drive me to the test center, and we would follow behind the cars of people undergoing the test. Upon my repeatedly observing the test routine, I would then just practice and master only the route and maneuvers the road test specifically entailed. It worked--I got my license and flew overseas. Of course, though officially certified, my actual driving abilities were primitive, especially for changing gears. Yet, the communist bloc preaching, demanding massive long-distance driving, couldn't wait.
The ISKCON leader at the time, Harikesa Swami, resolved the dilemma. He took me out in his car on the autobahn--no speed limits--put me in the driver seat, and told me to go for it. As Mercedes and BMWs thundered by at 200 km (125 miles) per hour, I quickly got over my road fear. Gear shifting, however, still eluded me. Though not crucial on the autobahn, it was completely necessary on ordinary roads. Never mind--the time for a mission to Bulgaria was upon us. A 24-hour drive from Germany to Bulgaria would surely cure my ailing manual shifting. Off we went, my Godbrother Rama Sraddha--who couldn't drive at all--at my side, and yours truly at the wheel.
Noisily grinding the gear box all the 24 hours to Sofia, Bulgaria, I then lurched our car 7 more hours through the country to a secret program arranged at some unknown contact's house at Varna, on the Black Sea. There we celebrated Janmastami and Prabhupada's Vyasa Puja, aided by a translator, surrounded by 15 total strangers, all eager for something beyond the bleak life in Soviet Bulgaria. After two days the mini-festival ended, and the group dispersed. Fed by an informant at the gathering, the KGB roared into action, grilling all who had attended. Ram Sraddha and I had departed only hours before the raid. Regardless of the brutal Soviet regime, though, Krishna's nectarean poison was already at work. One of the people I had spoken to and instructed later emerged as Radhavallabha das, a fearless, empowered leader and organizer on behalf of Lord Chaitanya.
To be precise, there were already three or four Bulgarian devotees in Sofia, far inland to the west, but they were quite timid about preaching and just mixed bhakti into their private family lives, rarely venturing outside their tiny closed circle. Anyone knowing the ferocity of the Bulgarian KGB could hardly blame them. Radhavallabha's divine, bold service, however, decisively broke open the dam that had blocked the floodwaters of love of God there. Bulgarian devotees now refer to him as the original devotee, because it was he who first came out of the closet, to actually launch the active Krishna consciousness mission in that nation. He was certainly the original leader.
Radhavallabha turned out to be too good and effective at his precious devotional service. The KGB took note and let him know about it. Still he fearlessly pushed on, throughout Bulgaria. The Russian KGB, as you may have read in Salted Bread, were more subtle than their Bulgarian brethren. The Russian secret police would snatch devotees and then, after a mock trial, dispatch them to forced labor camps in Siberia, for gradually destroying their body and mind. The Bulgarians lacked such patience and finesse.
One day Radhavallabha was walking alongside a road, when out of nowhere appeared a speeding car. Veering off the road, it rammed him, and raced away--a trademark KGB killing.
Those were the days. We thought they'd never end.
I offer my most respectful obeisances to the departed bhakti hero Radhavallabha das, who, as a daring servant of Lord Chaitanya, is surely situated in the spiritual world.
Krishna in the Gita certifies the status of the devotee dedicated to spreading His glories: "Pure devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me. There is no servant in this world more dear to Me than he, nor will there ever be one more dear."
Govardhana Hill is my sanctuary now, for 12 days. There's no material stimulation whatsoever for the mind here; hence neophyte devotees beware. To the unaware, life at the foot of Sri Giriraja, the king of mountains, can appear bleak and empty--despite horns honking, loudspeakers blaring atop nearby temples, and processions of pilgrims chanting and drumming as they circumambulate Govardhana.
What's a swami holiday here like? Dedication to ever fresher chanting, reading, and associating with Godbrothers are the main events. "The days are cooling down now," His Holiness Kesava Bharati Maharaja informs me. Sure, I silently reply--the temperature is 37 degrees C (98.6 F).
I don't care about the heat. O Sri Govardhana, the best servitor of Krishna, I look forward to my days at your foot. Casting aside bodily cares in the all-spiritual atmosphere, this lowly devotee will seek the shelter of the holy name. Tomorrow is Ekadasi--I can't wait to get my tongue and fingers in action. Best to clear out my email and finish settling in today. Tomorrow will be a feast of japa beads and divine sound. What a miracle Srila Prabhupada has performed--transporting en masse the lowest of humanity from Kali-yuga to Vrindavan's forests.
"Spiritual Economics" - lecture given by Devamrita Swami, to 150 professors, MBA students, and government officials at the main auditorium of the Rotman School of Business and Management, the University of Toronto, May 29, 2007. (click here read more)
The Rotman School has set out to redesign business education for the 21st century and become one of the world's top-tier business schools. Located in the heart of Toronto -- North America's third-largest financial centre and one of the world's most culturally-diverse cities -- the School is developing an innovative curriculum built around Integrative ThinkingTM and Business DesignTM. These are just some of the reasons why Bruce Nussbaum recently wrote in BusinessWeek Online, "Managers who want to 'get' the new innovation paradigm should check out [Rotman's] MBA and exec-ed programs"; Simon London wrote in the Financial Times, "A handful of enlightened business school deans – such as Robert Joss at Stanford, Dipak Jain at Kellogg and Roger Martin at the Rotman School – are starting to preach the gospel of integrated thinking, cross-disciplinary studies and learning-by-doing”; and The Wall Street Journal called the Rotman School a "hidden gem." The Rotman vision for 21st-century business education is built around Integrative Thinking. The current model of business education -- which divides business into a number of functional areas -- has changed little since its introduction in the early 20th century. Although this model provided global leadership for nearly a century, its inherent flaws are becoming increasingly problematic as the modern economy takes shape. One of the weaknesses of the traditional approach is that business problems rarely lie within the boundaries of individual functional areas, and cannot be resolved using the narrow models developed within functional boundaries. Today's business problems sprawl messily across the functions -- and across models -- creating a need for managers who can attend simultaneously to a vast array of interconnected variables and deal effectively with enigmatic choices. In short, modern leadership necessitates Integrative Thinking. That's why our curriculum is constantly evolving, with the introduction of new courses, content, and approaches. In short, the Rotman School is developing a new way to think. We invite you to be a part of it.