Some dogs go to Heaven

22 05 2021

Nothing begins, and nothing ends,
That is not paid with moan,
For we are born in other’s pain,
And perish in our own.

-from “Daisy” by Francis Thompson

As my final installment summarizing my thoughts on the Chaitanya Charitamrita, I wanted to present the one anecdote from this scripture that summarizes the real spirit of Krishna consciousness. And, as could be expected, this anecdote involves a dog.

The story is told at the beginning of the Antya Lila. Śivānanda Sena found a dog who he began to feed. One day, when the dog wasn’t fed, he wandered off and was thought lost. Later, Śivānanda Sena and other devotees found that the dog had made his way to the feet of Lord Chaitanya, and that the Lord was feeding him. To their surprise, Lord Chaitanya was also teaching the dog to chant the Holy Names. The episode concludes:

When he saw the dog sitting in that way and chanting the name of Kṛṣṇa, Śivānanda, because of his natural humility, immediately offered his obeisances to the dog just to counteract his offenses to it. The next day, no one saw that dog, for it had obtained its spiritual body and departed for Vaikuṇṭha, the spiritual kingdom. Such are the transcendental pastimes of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, the son of mother Śacī. He even delivered a dog simply by inducing it to chant the mahā-mantra, Hare Kṛṣṇa. (Antya 1.31-33)

When I read this anecdote, I started making loose associations between dogs and the spiritual life. Of course, there is Yudhishthira’s dog in the Mahabharata who turned out to the incarnation of Dharma. Otherwise, dogs are meant to be lowly and suggestible animals. Jesus, as a means to rebuke and test the faith of the Canaanite woman seeking healing for her son, said to her: It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs. (Matthew 15:26) On the other hand, one of the most influential religious orders in the Catholic Church likened themselves to dogs: Domini canes, the dogs of the Lord.

More recently the 19th century English Catholic poet Francis Thompson likened God to a dog in his poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” I relate to Francis Thompson for a variety of reasons, mostly because I like the metaphor, but also because he’s not a standard character in Catholic folk hagiography. “The Hound of Heaven” is a poem about his own struggles with addiction and the darkness that it brought to his life. The Hound in this case is God pursuing him like a dog pursues his prey. Thompson writes:

But with unhurrying chase,

And unperturbèd pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

They beat—and a Voice beat

More instant than the Feet—

‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.

The chase in this case is that all the things that Thompson pursued as a poet (inspiration, fame, worldly glory) could not satisfy him. And in his case, his obsession with opium which was tied to his poetry was literally destroying his body and soul.

The literary scholar Robert Waldron attempts to piece together the circumstances behind the writing of this poem in his fictional work, The Hound of Heaven at My Heels: The Lost Diary of Francis Thompson. Waldron learned that there was likely a diary that the poet kept from his time at Premonstratensian Monastery in Storrington, England. Thompson had been sent there by his benefactors after he lapsed once again into opium addiction. The diary is now lost, but Waldron uses his knowledge of the poet’s life to try to reconstruct it, with admittedly mixed results (Waldron uses terms like, “The Liturgy of Hours,” which would not have been in use in the 19th century). Waldron’s poet comes across and sensitive and pious, almost to the point of being affected. However, this distaste for Waldron’s Thompson might be a symptom of my 21st century jaded cynicism. Nevertheless, Waldron effectively summarizes the horror that Thompson might have gone through as a vagabond opium addict on the streets of 19th century London. Thompson had dreamed of being a bohemian poet only to end up in the gutter, and he was only salvaged by benefactors who looked past his ruinous appearance to see the potential within.

The slim volume ends with Thompson getting back on his feet and seemingly kicking his addiction. He gradually regains his health, is forgiven of his sins, and begins to write poetry again. He is encouraged by the monks and visitors concerning his God-given talents and his vocation as a poet. “The Hound of Heaven” which he completes during this time is by far his most renowned poem, and it brought him instant notoriety. Sadly, Thompson’s story doesn’t really have a happy ending. He continued to relapse from time to time into opium addiction, and scholars increasingly believe that he died as a result of his addiction in 1907, nearly 20 years after he wrote his famous poem.

If you’ve known an actual addict, you know that they never really get over it, and they would be the first to admit it. I had a friend from childhood, older than I was, who has since passed on. I saw him at his worst when he was addicted to heroin and alcohol. I saw him get better, up to the point of being fully functional in society, able to have relationships. I thought his days as an addict were over. Then, one night, I got a call from him asking if I could drive him somewhere. I didn’t ask questions, and just came and got him. On our way to our unspecified destination, he told me that, in the end, he couldn’t really love or care for anyone else: he just had to work on himself. I thought this the saddest thing I had ever heard. We drove on in silence to the address. Though it wasn’t explicitly indicated to me, it was a methadone clinic. He was trying to get clean again, but I don’t really think he ever did. He kept on being semi-functional, but one day, his ex-wife found him dead. He had been sick for a while, and he knew that he was dying, but he didn’t call for help. He died alone, though I think that’s what he wanted. I respect that on one level.

If I have one prayer now, it’s “Dear God, please don’t let me end up like that.” But on closer inspection, I am like that. By all measures, I am a functioning taxpaying member of society, some would say an upstanding, church-attending citizen. But I know the difference between me, my friend, and Francis Thompson is just one bad mistake and its consequences. I never struggled with addiction in the conventional sense, but I have struggled with sin, self-loathing, regret, and all of the other horrible results of being alive in the material world. So many things are holding me back from loving and serving God well, I just have the illusion behind me that I am a “good person”. I know I am not, I know I have problems. And I know I can’t resolve them on my own. I am just as lost.

When you’re young and a religious zealot, you think you are chasing God. One could easily identify with another poet’s verse, this time in Spanish. I speak of St. John of the Cross who wrote:

Tras de un amoroso lance
y no de esperanza falto
volé tan alto tan alto
que le di a la caza alcance.

(Behind a loving prey / and not lacking hope / I flew high, so high / that I caught up to my prey).

But when you are old, tired, and resigned like me, God has to chase you. I identify with Thompson and I feel I share a similar disposition. Waldron pens in the voice of Thompson:

When I returned to myself, I discovered that two hours had flown by. Our pastor, Father Ignatius, preparing for Mass, glanced at me and smiled, surely thinking I was a pious boy. No, not pious, only imaginative. The real world never appealed to me except as it is a shadow of the world to come.

Like the young Thompson, I have always straddled this world and the next, without being able to commit to either. Thompson’s opium addiction was a cross, but it was also an obstacle to true sanctity. He could never really be free. My recurring piety is my life is not the result of genuine love of God, but boredom, and a general dissatisfaction at not being able to possess the things of this world. I am imaginative, not pious. I am spacey, not holy. And I have no means to fix that.

I return now to Lord Chaitanya’s lila, this time to the episode in which He delivers His disciple, Mukunda Datta. Mukunda Datta was a favorite of Lord Chaitanya as he had a sweet voice and encyclopedic knowledge of music. The only problem is that he was a bit soft philosophically. When Mukunda Datta encountered impersonalists, he was a bit too accommodating and played along with their philosophical nonsense. One day, Lord Chaitanya openly rejected Mukunda Datta for his deviations. Deciding to commit suicide, Mukunda Datta asked the Lord if he could receive His mercy again in a future life. Lord Chaitanya responded that Mukunda Datta would receive His mercy after passing through one million more births. At this, Mukunda Datta began jumping up and down and shouting, “Only one million births! Only one million births!” At seeing his enthusiasm, Lord Chaitanya received Mukunda Datta back into His fold.

I will be honest and say that I could not possibly have that reaction. I am petty and selfish, and this life has had enough of its share of woes and pains that I really, really don’t want to have to do this again. But in all likelihood, I will have to. Like Thompson, I am an addict, and just when I thought I have gotten clean, or rather, remembered God, I lapse back into addiction, namely, I forget God. I have no shelter here.

Returning to Lord Chaitanya’s dog, I was stopped in my tracks by this purport by Srila Prabhupada to one of the verses in the story:

As will be evident from the following verses, the dog got the mercy of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu and was immediately promoted to Vaikuṇṭha to become an eternal devotee. Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura has therefore sung, tumi ta’ ṭhākura, tomāra kukkura, baliyā jānaha more (Śaraṇāgati 19). He thus offers to become the dog of a Vaiṣṇava. There are many other instances in which the pet animal of a Vaiṣṇava was delivered back home to Vaikuṇṭhaloka, back to Godhead. Such is the benefit of somehow or other becoming the favorite of a Vaiṣṇava. Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura has also sung, kīṭa-janma ha-u yathā tuyā dāsa (Śaraṇāgati 11). There is no harm in taking birth again and again. Our only desire should be to take birth under the care of a Vaiṣṇava. Fortunately we had the opportunity to be born of a Vaiṣṇava father who took care of us very nicely. He prayed to Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī that in the future we would become a servant of the eternal consort of Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Thus somehow or other we are now engaged in that service. We may conclude that even as dogs we must take shelter of a Vaiṣṇava. The benefit will be the same as that which accrues to an advanced devotee under a Vaiṣṇava’s care. (Antya 1.24 Purport)

This is the sentiment repeated in the Vaishnava temple song to the guru when we sing, “He is my Lord, birth after birth.” My residual Catholicism shrinks from this: I want to be saved, and right now. I know that I will mess up again and forget God. Indeed, this was one of Aquinas’ arguments against universal salvation, namely, that God saving even the damned wouldn’t be particularly fair to those who struggled mightily to save themselves in this life. But all the same, Srila Prabhupada is saying that, in the end, it doesn’t matter if you end up a dumb dog in your next life, as long as you are under the shelter of a true devotee of the Lord. As long as you can be of some service, it doesn’t matter if you are a worm, a demigod, or serving Srimati Radharani in Goloka Vrindavan itself. “Salvation” isn’t about what God can do for you, it’s about what you can do for God. If Krishna wants me to be a dog in my next life, I’ll be a dog, provided that some kind Vaishnava is there to take care of me. The only Heaven is to remember Krishna with those who serve Him, and the only Hell is to forget Him.

There is a story of another addict who had a happier ending. Mark Ji Tianxiang was a doctor from a Christian family in 19th century China who became sick with a stomach affliction and used opium to treat his illness. Unfortunately, he became addicted to opium and was finally told by his priest that, unless he kicked his addiction, he could not receive the sacraments. Mark was effectively excommunicated, though he still kept showing up for Mass. After thirty years, the Boxer Rebellion occurred, and all the Christians of the city were rounded up and given a choice to either renounce Christ or be killed. People thought that Mark, like most addicts, would fold under pressure. Instead, he and his family were beheaded for refusing to renounce the faith. He died singing the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Only in death could he kick his addiction, but in the process, he received the crown of martyrdom.

Through the prayers of all the devotees of the Lord, may we all become the loyal dogs we are meant to be.


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