Acting without noise

One of the key teachings of Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā is Karma Yoga or consecrated action. It is action that is completely removed from selfish motives.

In Stray Birds, Rabindranath Tagore writes,

Either you have work or you have not.

When you have to say,  ‘Let us do something,’ then begins mischief. [171]

There is always work to be done. Selfless work is the work that is done without burdening oneself with the idea I am doing something super-significant and awesome. On reflection, it is straightforward to see that it is a useless idea which only comes in the way of work and dissipates our energy fruitlessly.

Work has to be done because work is needed for survival. Work has to be done to avoid the devil of idleness and ruin. Work has to be done because the product of work is beautiful. Work has to be done simply because we can do wonderful things. Work is the labor of love; it is the gift of life.  Work becomes great when it is not seen as great work.

He, who is too busy doing good, has no time to be good.

Work should not be done because there is a gaping hole in our hearts. It is not the outlet for virtue signaling. It is not a way to fulfill our narrow want to appear larger than life.  This is why we are warned: the way to hell is paved with good intentions.

Work is an expression of life and of joy.

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Respond with understanding

Svāmī Piḷḷai Lokācārya in his magnum opus Śrī-vacana-bhūṣaṇam writes a beautiful sūtra teaching five ways of responding to transgression.

Patience, compassion, smile, acceptance and gratitude must be responses to transgressions. [365]

If a person harms us or abuses us, adopts mental, verbal or physical violence, the  first and most important thing to do is to not reciprocate. The root cause of all suffering in the world is impulsive or calculated reciprocation of harm. By responding with violence, we join the transgressor in the act of transgression. The transgressor has won over a convert so that the force of violence would thrive in one form or the other. To avoid this from happening, we must learn to see what is happening and understand it deeply. For this we need patience.

Patience creates understanding that allows us to relate to the source of violence which is usually a deep sense of emptiness or some form of pain. When we realize the harmful effects of pain and the suffering it creates in the individual, it allows cultivation of compassion towards the transgressor. We also understand the pain that would be endured in future as a result of this transgression. Compassion arrests the process of creating more pain and opens our understanding to more useful solutions.

There is no weapon more potent than a smile. Smiling communicates inner compassion and understanding. It advertises to the transgressor what our response is to violence. Violent people lose their ability to understand and relate to feelings of others. They are numbed with negative emotions. Smiling makes our inner state of mind explicit as it is very visible. When we see ourselves in others and acknowledge violence as a common disease, we smile out of compassion. We smile out of the understanding that the ego is throwing a tantrum without allowing the person to know oneself.

The fourth response is acceptance. In order to respond effectively, we need to accept the situation peacefully. Allowing the transgression passively is dangerous and a response is necessary. But, this response must not take the form of fighting. It should not create a condition of conflict where the transgressor goes on the defensive and enters deeper into darkness. Acceptance is the art of bringing what is hiding in the darkness to light and allowing for redemption.

Acts of transgression also allow us the opportunity for gratitude. The problems of the human condition hide in darkness and make us commit acts of extreme violence without feeling. When the same act of transgression is committed against us, we suffer. That suffering provides us the opportunity to see the problem in ourselves. It awakens us to the adverse effects of our own actions that we did not notice because we did not suffer their consequences. Response is not always in the form of changing something or someone outside. A response to transgression is complete only when there is inner transformation. One comes out of the suffering with greater understanding and a renewed strength to handle such transgressions. We uplift more of ourselves from darkness to light.

Obviously, there is no instant panacea for all of our problems and the above mantra may not lead to quick success or victory over the situaiton. This does not justify acts that nurture conflict and violence. The only hope for humanity, in the long run, lies in responding with understanding. The transformation that follows may be slow but it is the only way transformation is possible. The slow nature of transformation also provides a scope for deep understanding of the human condition and creates the opportunity for spiritual innovation. Note that the sūtra above does not define what the exact response should be, but only mentions the values that shape the response. Defining the exact form of response would hamper understanding. One would ignore what the situation is and go ahead with a preconceived response; if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Our urge to live in a simple world that divides neatly into good and bad is the source of most suffering. The world is complex and throws up complicated situations. It demands that we are heedful and understand. The world draws forth our creativity in arriving at novel responses. And in this, lies our true beauty.

The Three Virtues

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣat [5-2]
Brahmā/Prajāpati had three types of children – the gods, the humans and the demons. All three groups studied under their father. 
The gods asked Prajāpati, “Sir, Teach us.”
Prajāpati replied with a single letter, “da” and asked them, “Have you understood?”
The gods replied, “Yes, we have. da is dāmyata – have restraint.” Prajāpati agreed that they had. 
The humans asked Prajāpati, “Sir, Teach us.”
Prajāpati replied with a single letter, “da” and asked them, “Have you understood?”
The humans replied, “Yes, we have. da is datta- give.” Prajāpati agreed that they had. 
The demons asked Prajāpati, “Sir, Teach us.”
Prajāpati replied with a single letter, “da” and asked them, “Have you understood?”
The demons replied, “Yes, we have. da is dayadhvam- have compassion.” Prajāpati agreed that they had. 
The thunder in the sky goes “da da da” as if it were conveying this message to all of us: practise self-restraint, engage in charity and have compassion. 
The gods are the sense organs; humans are the mind and demons are emotions. What is needed for sense organs is restraint. What is needed for the mind is charity to overcome selfishness. What is needed for emotions is compassion to prevent them from going negative.
When the senses are in control, the mind is not craving and becomes generous, when emotions live in the background of compassion, one gains insight into oneself and gains a spiritual sight. That which cultivates a spiritual sight is a virtue.

For the redemption of religion

In a recent conversation, an elderly gentleman bemoaned the lack of religion in the modern world, especially among the youth. He also spoke of the lack of interest of youngsters in understanding and treasuring the principles of Śrīvaiṣṇavism.
Counting myself a youngster and writing on this blog, I feel it apt to address this concern. The voice of youngsters is ignored when seniors think they understand everything. This post can be seen as an open-letter to religious communities in general and the Śrīvaiṣṇava community in particular.
The key reasons for the perceived decline of religion are the below:
(1) Disillusionment due to immorality
Every other scope of human activity can tolerate the existence of good and bad. For example, science can be put to good or bad use depending on the individual employing its principles. However, this escape route does not and should not exist for religion. Religion makes tall claims of redeeming people and it cannot escape with the excuse that errors committed by practitioners of religion are their own defects and not the defects of religion. If religion fails to redeem a person who comes in contact with it, it has spectacularly failed. Many youngsters are turned off by either the lack of application of moral principles or their outdated nature in the premise of religion. When religion invents spurious reasons to defend the immoral behavior of its elite, it brings no sane person closer to it.
(2) Exclusivism
In ancient times, when religious groups stuck together and derived a sense of community and strength from their group, it might have made sense to defend the group carefully, even to survive. Common ways of defending the group are (i) very low tolerance for in-group hostility, (ii) suppression of inquiry to prevent any confusion regarding core values within the community, (iii) some form of punishment for blasphemy, heresy or apostasy ranging from indifference or social exclusion to physical abuse or death, (iv) preventing outside views from polluting the community and adopting an aggressive stance with respect to systems other than one’s own to diminish their sway among followers, and (v) claims of being the only way to liberation or a better life sustained together with the belief that one’s own masters are the highest form of divinity while the masters of other faiths are either complete idiots or manifestations of the devil.
While the methods vary from religion to religion, there are some inevitable consequences:
(i) intolerance
(ii) blind dogmatism
(iii) selective application of moral principles
All of these are capable of leading to violence at some level and are dangerous.
In the modern information age, where information is freely accessible and we live in a diverse world, it is clear that the old objectives of religion regarding community are no longer relevant. Nay, they are even harmful. It is time religions woke up to the challenges of the modern world and reinvented their methods. For this to happen, they would have to give up on some manifestations of their principles. Most of the time, it is apparent that the applications of religion are grossly in violation of their own principles. It is time to introspect whether the particular manifestations of principles at some place and during some period of time are universally and eternally applicable. It is worth pondering if those methods, applied today, do not militate against core religious principles. In some cases, we need to be honest and disown actions that are blatantly immoral, which cannot be permitted under any circumstance, no matter how high a saint prescribed them.
(3) Lack of innovation

Religions compete with one another and sects even more so on who is the true follower of dogma, scripture or tradition. This is nothing short of comedy. There is no other way to disrespect the core principles of religion than to destroy the creative spirit and discourage innovation. Even those who stake the claim to orthodoxy are innovating all the time trying to force-fit their outdated views and habits to a modern world. If anything, they are the foremost of innovators though they may not see it.

Lack of innovation inhibits creative solutions to the challenges of the modern world. By forcing solutions of a world past on the world today, religious leaders alienate people from their own religion. There is no use complaining about the lack of faith if the creative principle of life is suppressed.
(4) Reversal of priorities

The very complaint that faith is on the decline is a sign of misplaced priorities. Some religious elites engage in guilt-mongering to keep their flock. It is not the purpose of humans to serve religion. It is the purpose of religion to serve humans, to transform & redeem them and to enable them lead better lives, here and now. It is indeed very simple: If people are happy, why are you concerned? But if there is suffering, what is your solution?

It is ironical that leaders of religion spend more time attracting resources to protect their religion than understanding the problems of the day and offering solutions. They fail to realize that religion lives for and in people. If they are able to make the world a better place and enable people to live with or overcome their problems, there is no need to defend or protect their space. The religion will live by itself. It appears that the leaders/elites of religion are concerned about their own political power which might be compromised if the doors are thrown open.
(5)  Attitudes towards women
Even when religious systems become more open to all walks of people, they seem intent on disowning or ill-treating half the population. It appears that broad-mindedness extends only up to all kinds of men. Women are well-educated, intelligent and successful in the modern world. It is joke that they are deprived of equal religious rights. While there may be justified arguments for separating roles of men and women due to real differences between them, there is no reason to treat women as secondary citizens and then use twisted reasoning to argue that this is not the case.
My View of Religion
There is a fundamental urge in every human being to understand truth and live with dignity. Our mundane life creates scope for neither of these. Thankfully, science provides one (significant) part of the answer to understand the world around us. Religion is the other part that speaks directly to the soul. Religion is not the matter of descriptions about reality but a portal to connect with reality, all of reality, the ultimate reality. It must be noted that modern science has done an admirable job in opening our perspectives with respect to reality. The fact that all our sense data are different forms of signals, that our minds produce their own approximations of the world, the fact that all life evolved and continues to evolve from a common origin, that all life is continuous and there is no hard dividing line between species, that our universe is incredibly more wonderful than we think and can think … these are all capable of waking us up and question our narrowness of mind, our false certainties, and our ignorant arrogance. They instill in us a sense of belonging to the world, and a sense of sanctity and unity of all life. It would be tragic if religion served a purpose less than that of science in broadening our vision. Religion should go even further and enable us to relate to reality in ways, deeper still. Religion is not the way of escaping the world; it is the way of connecting with it. It is not the museum of dogmatic relics, it is life itself – dynamic, evolving, understanding and relating.
Religious institutions and followers alike must understand and recognize the fundamental drive for a spiritual life that exists in all of us. They must realize the ennobling effect of spirituality and the scope of redemption in connecting first to ourselves, in looking deep within, in finding oneself in the universe and finding the universe in oneself.
Ultimate reality, the suchness of things, God, Brahman, the Universal Self or Spirit, the Great Law, the Absolute, the Transcendent, the Ground of all being, the Being, the Presence, the Numinous, the Divine – is certainly above and beyond the trivial walls of institutional structure and language invented and managed by us. Yet, it is also directly available to us and is everywhere. It is available to everyone, not just the so-called chosen ones. It is the glimpse of this greatness available to every soul that inspires religion. The pillars of religion are understanding, humility, love and compassion. Religion is for those who have a relentless commitment to truth, and an appetite for discovery. Religion takes great courage, not because it demands faith, but because it is the enterprise of puny and humble humans to spiritually consume all of reality, to consume God.
In this sense, all religions, ranging from the most ‘primitive’ ones that engage in self-mortification to appease a deity to the most sophisticated ones are voices coming out of the same basic enterprise; they communicate the intent of grasping the infinite. Even atheists are our allies in the process of religion; they may be our truest allies. Sincere atheists are without faith not because they hate God but because they find our God and our systems too petty to trust in. They expose how our understanding of God denigrates God, how our systems or institutions denigrate humanity. They show where religion fails. They do not and cannot deny God, for who can or will deny what is beautiful, what is true, what is life-transforming and full of love?
There is no use complaining. Please wake up.

What is ParaBrahman?

Meaning

The word ‘Brahman’ means the greatest. The Pādma Purāṇa defines the Brahman as that which is great and endows greatness. Svāmī Rāmānuja explains the Brahman as that which is endowed with the quality of excellence in everything.

The word Brahman might be used in other contexts where greatness is to be implied. However, the primary use of the word is in communicating the One in whom greatness or excellence is unsurpassed both in essence and by traits.

It is to clarify this point that this site is title ParaBrahman. The prefix Para means Supreme.

Motivation

The ParaBrahman is the logical end of metaphysics. Western philosophy is frustrated with metaphysics due to the inability of the human mind to reach a determinate conclusion. Hence, metaphysics is not considered to be a worthy expense of the intellect today.  One cannot help but feel amused by this situation for it resembles the story of the fox deciding that the grapes must be sour when it could not reach them.

The questions of metaphysics cannot be willed away merely because we find our devices inadequate to the task.  The religion of Vedānta starts where metaphysics stops baffled. Instead of giving up on the ultimate being in metaphysics, the Vedānta pushes the boundaries further and attempts to approach the being beyond measure. The Vedānta realizes that there are limits to reason and intellectual grasping. Where intellectual grasping ends, life starts. Concepts and symbols can only take us so far. Beyond that, the human life has to be lived. The end of metaphysics can be approached only by direct encounter with reality and not by the constructs of the mind.

The Indian Sage of the last century, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore became intimate with the Brahman in the field of love. Where the rational mind gives up, poetry enters. Poetry lets us understand by living feeling what cannot be expressed in conceptual and rational language.

I touch by the edge of the far-spreading wing of my song thy feet which I could never aspire to reach. – Gītāñjali

r-20tagore

In trying to explain the poem, one inevitably destroys its meaning. In full awareness of the distortions that creep into an explanation, let us indulge in a few important perspectives in the above verse.

Tagore talks about how the final end of metaphysics that imbues our lives with meaning is utterly beyond our grasp. The Vedic sage said, yato vāco nivartante aprapya manasā saha (Taittirīya Upaniṣat – 2.9.1).  “From whom speech and mind return failing to grasp.”

Unlike the Western philosopher, this difficulty does not let the sage to give up. The philosopher is too proud of his rational abilities and he despises that in which his abilities fail. The same failure is capable of transforming a person into a sage. The mind that seeks to control and dominate ends in frustration. This is not the scientific mind that is full of curiosity and exploration; this is the mind that wants the universe to comply with its mental structure.

The mind of the sage is more open and receptive. When the Vedic metaphysician is defeated, she is not disappointed. How can one be disappointed with truth unless one were seeking something else? Instead, she exults in defeat because it is defeat that emancipates the mind from its own constructs.

Defeat is deeply spiritual. When one looks into the vastness of space or contemplates on the beauty and magnitude of the universe as explained by astronomers, one stands defeated. All concepts, judgments and theories are insufficient to explain our experience of the spectacular beauty, grandeur and enormity of the universe. It is a moment when one drops to one’s knees with tears in the eyes and a sense of joy pervading the heart in belonging to something so great and wonderful.

In Vedānta, success (siddhi) is not measured by how accurately one has worded one’s theories but by how soon one is defeated in this exercise. How long does it take to relate with all of one’s life to one that is beyond us? In the Jitante Stotram, the Vedic sage starts off with the exclamation jitante! which means Victory is Yours!

Taking refuge in the power of poetry, the Vedic sage (like Tagore) sings. In song, she seeks not to grasp but only touch. The profound of humility that stems from this intensely spiritual experience demands an outlet.  To fulfill that demand, the Brahman becomes a person, the Supreme Person in order to speak to the soul in human condition.

Again in the Jitante Stotram, the sage notes this point for he sings, You possess no form, no shape, no instruments, no abode. You shine in the form of super-human person only for the sake  of those taken in love.

The form of this Person is such that mixes two aspects: the human aspect that speaks to humans and the transcendent aspect that communicates that divinity transcends humanity. The idea of ParamaPuruṣa (Supreme Person) or Īśvara (God) is not anthropomorphic. It is not a simple projection of human ideals. It is the acknowledgement of the value of human life and feeling. It is that dimension of the Brahman which is recognized to relate to the human mind. It is a form of grace that exists for our sake. The purpose of God is not to deify human intentions and urges, but to make the transcendent Brahman relevant to man.

Every time, the Vedānta speaks of God, it hastens to add neti neti – not this much, not this much (or not so, not so)To speak of the Brahman is an act of immense courage. Every attempt of such courage is toned down with an overwhelming sense of humility. One can help but feel that the spoken word has diminished Brahman instead of revealing His glories.

The sage gives purpose to the longing of the human mind by relating to the Supreme Brahman as the Supreme Person. The sense of humility arising from defeat lets one carefully touch by song, and that too only His feet.

In the Vaiṣṇava approach to Vedānta, this Supreme Person is Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa, the Supreme Good, the Supreme Beauty, the Supreme Harmony, who is enchanting and wonderful. His vision inspires love. The saint Tirumazisai Āzvār calls Him patthi uzavan or Love-Farmer. He resides in the hearts of all and is relatable as Rāma or Kṛṣṇa. In this sense, Viṣṇu is recognized as complete as He communicates greatness, transcendence, love, accessibility, tranquility, strength, immanence and bliss. Hence, most Vaiṣṇavas take the view that another notion of God is unnecessary.  Viṣṇu is sufficient and inexhaustible. If this view is not properly understood, it appears as a base form of sectarianism (my God vs your God) or as exclusivism. It is Vaiṣṇavas themselves who have to come to terms with this view correctly before they expect others to understand.

Vaiṣṇava Vedānta is complete as a religion in that it is purposeful to humans. Its purpose is to raise the human soul to envision and experience reality that transcends words. Its purpose is to use that experience to transform and redeem humanity from narrowness of thought, from selfishness and pettiness. It is not the way of passive tight-lipped recluse; it is the way of the joy and feeling. This approach does not deprive the mind of its sentiment and feeling. Instead, it uplifts their dynamics from mundane to spiritual, imbuing them with a higher purpose. The purpose is to fill the human soul with the fullness of life.