Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Standing Rock: An American Kumbha Mela

I want to acknowledge the boldness, heroism and humility exhibited by the US veterans, both men and women, and including Tulsi Gabbard -- a warrior and congresswoman. In solidarity, they joined the Native Americans and many others at Standing Rock. They are truly warriors and leaders. I practice the Vaisnava/Krishna tradition. And these vets, and indeed all who have gathered at Standing Rock, are for me paragons of my tradition. Three reasons:

1- There’s a Krishna prayer that "one should think of themselves as straw on the street, be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of false ego, and ready to offer all respects to others." That’s what I see happening in these photos of the vets.  

2 - In my tradition, it’s also explained that you should leave a place cleaner than you found it. So rather than thinking ‘I didn’t make this mess. It’s not my problem’ one should think ‘Ok, there’s a mess here. I didn’t make it,  but I take the responsibility to clean it up.’ So these vets are ready to do whatever they can to bring about healing in our nation, even to humbly submit themselves before others. This is courage.

3 - Finally, the Native American elders said their gathering was not a protest, but rather a gathering for prayer to protect the river and the land. This is in keeping with the long spiritual history of India. At Standing Rock I see the spirit of Kumbha Mela, a pilgrimage held every twelve years, by sacred rivers, welcoming all people everywhere to attend. The Kumbha Mela has been going on since time immemorial. The event takes place in northern India in January, the coldest time of the year. 

There, and at many other events, people have gathered in large numbers for prayer, chanting the sacred names of God for the benefit of all and the protection of Mother Earth. These gatherings also give the attendees a chance to perform austerities in the form of fasting, bathing in the river's frigid water, facing a harsh climate, and sleeping on the earth rather than in a soft bed. I’m sure those who have gathered at Standing Rock know what I’m talking about.

America, and the world, sorely needs these types of examples more than ever. But warriors have to be leaders and courageous and generous, all at the same time. It’s not easy. The responsibilities of a warrior/leader are brought in sharp focus in the ancient epic Mahabharata.  I think Mahabharata is one of the most valuable stories for healing and for seekers of spiritual wisdom in our time.

The story is about five warrior brothers - the Pandavas - struggling to stand up to tyranny and at the same time keep their humanity. There’s a monumental battle that takes place. One of the most important things for them is to abide in the Dharma, to live with integrity. They strive to live in the courage, justice and humility that is required of them.

But just like the rift in our nation, the Pandavas don't always see eye to eye. They have their contentious moments, but they work through it. This is the very task set before us today. In closing, I humbly request of those who are organizing various events to include prayer, chants, and sacred ceremony as a show of unity among all spiritual traditions. Mitakuye Oyasin.  

PS: I have been on a journey with Mahabharata for over three decades; first offering it as a full-length drama and later as sacred storytelling and more recently in a 'fast-paced, cinematic' book.  For more on his award-winning rendering of the epic see

The Mindfulness Dilemma

“I’m making a failed attempt at mindful dishwashing,” exclaims an exasperated Ruth Whippman in an Op-Ed in the New York Times:

What’s this world coming to when we’re having a ‘mindful moment’ and we still feel miserable, not having found the happiness we think we deserve? What’s the value of meditation if it only makes us all the more aware of our mundane reality?

Is it any wonder that we would want to retreat from a world that offers news of constant strife? What have we to look forward to? A world of uncertainty, a lackluster economy, a people divided, everyone talking past one another, hurtling slogans and accusations, and never connecting nor really listening to one another.

With these burdens weighing upon us, meditation doesn’t seem to be enough. Maybe it’s downright ineffective! At the end of her article, Ms. Whippman evokes some studies which conclude that the results of meditation are “underwhelming” and that it might only “bring some small benefits. . . . compared with pretty much any general relaxation technique at all, including exercise. . . .”

Uh-oh! I can see millions of folks bailing. Is the multibillion-dollar meditation industry about to implode? Haven’t we already had enough game-changing moments this year. Maybe we’ve forgotten what meditation is for. Or perhaps we never fully understood it’s purpose to begin with. This is a opportunity to take a closer look at what meditation is all about.

“Mindfulness,” explains Ms Whippman, “is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life.” Well don’t tell Arjuna that. His mindful meditation took place on a battlefield. The Bhagavad Gita, which was spoken by Sri Krishna to the warrior prince Arjuna, is the original and superlative guide to meditation. A few points:

* Firstly, the Bhagavad Gita helps us understand that our existence is beyond the temporal body and mind.
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” Gita 2:12-13

* At Arjuna’s inquiry, Krishna goes on to describe the qualities of those who live the spiritual life, so that we may ourselves understand what to strive for.
“One who is not disturbed in spite of the threefold miseries, who is not elated when there is happiness, and who is free from attachment, fear and anger, is called a sage of steady mind.” Gita 2:56
“One who can control his senses by practicing the regulated principles of freedom can obtain the complete mercy of the Lord and thus become free from all attachment and aversion. For one who is so situated in the Divine consciousness, the threefold miseries of material existence exist no longer; in such a happy state, one's intelligence soon becomes steady.” Gita 2:64-65

* Meditation helps us to regulate our senses and mind to attain inner peace.
“A person who is not disturbed by the incessant flow of desires—that enter like rivers into the ocean which is ever being filled but is always still—can alone achieve peace, and not the man who strives to satisfy such desires.” Gita 2:70
“For one who has conquered the mind, the Supersoul is already reached, for he has attained tranquility. To such a man happiness and distress, heat and cold, honor and dishonor are all the same.” Gita 6:7
“He who is temperate in his habits of eating, sleeping, working and recreation can mitigate all material pains by practicing the yoga system.” Gita 6:17

* The Gita gives us a true understanding of detachment from worldly affairs and provides insight on how to rise above the dualities of life.
“The intricacies of action are very hard to understand. Therefore one should know properly what action is, what forbidden action is, and what inaction is.” Gita 4:17
“He who is satisfied with gain which comes of its own accord, who is free from duality and does not envy, who is steady both in success and failure, is never entangled, although performing actions.” Gita 4:22
“The Blessed Lord said: One who is unattached to the fruits of his work and who works as he is obligated is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic: not he who lights no fire and performs no work.” Gita 6:1

* Meditation helps us to see God working in our lives and to reawaken our relationship with that Supreme Transcendent Personality.
“That very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend; therefore you can understand the transcendental mystery of this science.” Gita 4:2
“For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost, nor is he ever lost to Me.” Gita 6:30
“I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me. The wise who know this perfectly engage in My devotional service and worship Me with all their hearts.” Gita 10:8

My article is not meant to criticize Ms. Whippman. Her general assessment is correct. The meditational process is difficult and even Arjuna has his doubts about it. But Krishna goes on to explain how we can achieve success in our meditation. He puts it quite succinctly to Arjuna in several places in the Gita. most notably: 

"And of all yogīs, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all." Gita 6:47

“Always chanting My glories, endeavoring with great determination, bowing down before Me, these great souls perpetually worship Me with devotion.” Gita 9:14

In our times, the kali-yuga (the age of rampant quarrel, greed, cheating and hypocrisy), the most potent and satisfying meditation is meditation on God’s holy names. God’s names are abundantly found in traditions all over the world. Especially recommended is the maha-mantra, the great mantra of peace: Hare Kṛiṣhṇa, Hare Kṛishna, Kṛishna Kṛishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare. It’s freely given. It can be sung, chanted softly on pray beads or it can even enhance one’s silent meditation by saying the mantra in the mind. The meditation is most effective when performed with humility and gratitude, and complimented with works of devotion.**

All quotes from Bhagavad Gita As It Is by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Sankirtana Das, (ACBSP) is an award-winning author and storyteller. For more about his book Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest, a ‘cinematic’ rendition of the ancient epic, see