Unlettered

25 03 2021
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 The brāhmaṇa replied, “I am illiterate and therefore do not know the meaning of the words. Sometimes I read the Bhagavad-gītā correctly and sometimes incorrectly, but in any case I am doing this in compliance with the orders of my spiritual master.”   

The brāhmaṇa continued, “Actually I only see Lord Kṛṣṇa sitting on a chariot as Arjuna’s charioteer. Taking the reins in His hands, He appears very beautiful and blackish.

“While seeing Lord Kṛṣṇa sitting in a chariot and instructing Arjuna, I am filled with ecstatic happiness.

“As long as I read the Bhagavad-gītā, I simply see the Lord’s beautiful features. It is for this reason that I am reading the Bhagavad-gītā, and my mind cannot be distracted from this.”

Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu told the brāhmaṇa, “Indeed, you are an authority in the reading of the Bhagavad-gītā. Whatever you know constitutes the real purport of the Bhagavad-gītā.”

After saying this, Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu embraced the brāhmaṇa, and the brāhmaṇa, catching the lotus feet of the Lord, began to cry. (Madhya lila Chapter 9 Verses 98-103)

This episode in the Caitanya-caritamrta takes place after Lord Chaitanya takes the renounced order (sannyasa) during his visits to various holy places throughout what is now India . Lord Chaitanya’s message is simple: chant the Holy Names of the Lord and you will be delivered from your sinful reactions. This is the goal of the Hare Krishna movement that He founded: that every town and village might ring out with the chanting of the Holy Name of Krishna.

Vedic religion is renowned for its intellectual rigor and complexity. The Hare Krishna movement, with its emphasis on book distribution and study of shastra (Scripture) shares this love of erudition, in spite of what other characterizations might insist. However, the Gaudiya sampradaya is unique even in Vaishnavism for its emphasis on the universality of bhakti. It doesn’t take much learning, or even any learning in the scholastic sense, to truly be adsorbed in the loving service of the Lord. The young Nimai Pandit (Lord Chaitanya’s name before He became a sannyasi) was a very learned scholar, but at a certain point He took a hard turn toward what many deemed at the time to be “sentimentalism”. He began to advocate public and very loud chanting of the names of the Mahamantra in the streets. The guardians of the established religious order, both Vedic and Muslim, felt threatened by this populist turn. But Lord Chaitanya’s mission was to spread the love of God regardless of caste or even religion. For those who follow Lord Chaitanya, the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra purifies all living beings and even the whole universe. This mercy of the Lord is the real purport of the Vedic scriptures, as Lord Chaitanya so lovingly tells the unlettered brahmana.

It’s hard to say when I first heard Hare Krishna chanting. They had an enormous presence at my university in the late 1990’s. They even had a copy shop that I frequented once or twice, complete with a counter with devotional items for sale. You would see the devotees do harinam on the streets and set up book tables in random spots. I was never interested.

As you probably know, my own religious background was thoroughly Western. Unlike most Hare Krishnas, I am not someone who comes into this as a blank slate in terms of religious fealty. Not only was my family practicing, but Catholic piety is something I grew up with, even if I was spared the strict fundamentalism of other families. I took up further study of Catholicism as a teenager, aspired to be a priest, and ultimately dropped out of college to pursue religious life. Listening to Hare Krishna devotees was the furthest thing from my mind while in college.

There was that one time that I did listen and appreciate. Maybe I was nineteen at the time. I remember being constantly sick in college. Nothing serious, but I think I caught the flu, and badly, every few months or so. I was otherwise young and healthy, but it was usually a couple of days of misery and I almost always just worked and studied through it. One time, probably in the spring, I was sick and really miserable between classes. I decided to find somewhere to sit in the sun. At one point, a normally dressed man sat down, pulled out a set of hand cymbals, and began chanting the Hare Krishna mantra right across from where I was sitting. I sat and listened to him for at least twenty minutes. He then got up and left. I can’t say that it was a spiritual experience but I felt better afterwards.

Years later, there were other times when I took refuge of the Hare Krishnas, though not in the philosophy, which I knew next to nothing about. I found a few kirtans online that I would listen to on my MP3 player in the late 2000’s. My appreciation of the music led to my first visits to the local Hare Krishna temple when no real services were going on. It was a nice place and I liked to sit in it. I even went to a program once, though I wasn’t particularly moved by it. My taste then and perhaps a bit still is for calm contemplative devotional music, less street party and more cloister. I know, right: an introverted and quiet Hare Krishna. There are days when I don’t think this is going to work.

From a question of appropriateness and timing, the whole Hare Krishna thing has dropped into my life like a biker gang crashing a ballet recital. My classical linguistic and philosophical formation was in Latin and Greek, not Sanskrit. I scoffed at the idea of reincarnation even as an atheist. I thought the idea that material reality is an illusion is some cop-out fantasy, and so on. My previous evaluation of the limited Hare Krishna message that I received was that they had some cool music and nice art, and that was it. I had no idea there were actual rigorous and unique ideas behind any of it.

Now, I am coming to something totally new and alien with a tired, middle aged brain. I spent my youthful intellectual energy learning Gregorian chant and high Scholastic philosophical categories. How the heck am I going to memorize Sanskrit slokas and Bengali devotional songs when my brain is full of Vulgate psalms and various prayers in Old Slavonic? I picked the “wrong horse” and rode it all the way into last place. Lucky me, I suppose, can’t say I didn’t deserve it.

For all the proverbial egg on my face, it goes without saying that I am still thankful. As the years pass, I am beginning to see that my relationship with my childhood faith was never going to work out. Too many things have changed even from when I was a kid, and too many architectonic issues were there at the beginning that I kept trying to squash but to no avail. I was so lukewarm and cynical about Catholicism for too long that something needed to give. And I can say that becoming a Hare Krishna (no matter how badly I am doing it) has made me a better Catholic… or at least has preserved the sentiments and ideas that I still cherish from that faith while discarding the stuff I would rather do without.

So for all of my defects otherwise, I sympathize with the brahmin described at the beginning of this little essay. I am going to be an illiterate devotee of Krishna (to a large extent) because of life choices and not necessarily because of lack of ability. My only real means of deliverance too will be looking at the darkly hued chariot driver of Arjuna, hoping that He can steer as well this wayward vehicle that is my life.

…Oddly enough, now that I think of it, my public library growing up definitely had a copy of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita as It Is. I definitely checked it out once or twice, but probably just looked at the pictures.


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