Thursday, February 14, 2013

Why does God permit suffering?

As part of a team of members who respond to questions from all over the world on behalf of the Ananda Worldwide Ministry, some questions get directed to me for a response. Today there came a classic question, "Why does God permit suffering." We are here in human form to discover the mysteries of our existence. Some who have gone before us have solved the riddles of life. Great souls such as Buddha, Krishna, and, in our time, Paramhansa Yogananda (author of the worldwide classic, "Autobiography of a Yogi"). 
When I first saw this question this afternoon, I thought, "Oh heavens, how am I supposed to say anything meaningful on so deep a question?" Often those who ask have suffered greatly: directly or through the loss of loved ones. There was no hint in the question that the person who wrote in to the website was especially or deeply hurt personally, but it is often the case when this question is asked.
So I penned below a response as best I could. Much more could be added but it is such a universal and important question, I thought to share the response with others:
RESPONSE (later "enhanced"):
Dear Friend,
You have asked the ages-old paradox that all compassionate and thoughtful people must ask: "Why does God (who is all Good), permit suffering?"
Is a parent negligent who permits his child to go to school where he may encounter bullies or simply other students who might harangue, insult or even fight with him? Is a parent negligent who permits his son to go to war, perhaps to return crippled for life, or to never return?
God is not the cause of suffering. Whatever else God is, we must do what we can to deal responsibly with our suffering, our grief, or the travails of others.  Why should we imagine, especially in our grief and pain, that we can understand the mind of God? This universe is vast and we are complex creatures. Let us not look afar to cast blame but be practical and do what we can to improve our or others' situation. 
A God's eye view of humanity reveals that we humans only think of God when we are in need. Left to our own, we prefer to revel in the the gifts and pleasures of His creation rather than to see these as but His gifts. Few receive His gifts with gratitude and love for the Giver. Fewer still can receive life's hardships as HIs gifts, given to purify our attachments or teach us valuable soul lessons. 
Instead, if we have too little, we want more; if we have much, we want more. We are never satisfied even when sated. We burn with disquietude, wondering all along "What's wrong with this picture?" "Who is to blame?" 99.9% of humanity is too busy chasing pleasure, happiness, security, recognition (or avoiding or getting over their opposites). 
Still, I must concede that those who suffer all too often and all too much are the innocent. But among life's many questions, can we ever really answer the questions that start with "Why?" Why was I born poor, rich, healthy, ill, luck or unfortunate? As suffering obviously happens and too often to those who do not deserve it, we cannot help but ask "Why" and wonder "Who is to blame."
Our instincts are well placed, however: someone indeed has to be blamed! For if there is not cosmic justice, no inexorable law of cause and effect, our universe, both outward (material) and inward (moral), will go up in flames of chaos, anger, violence and rebellion.
The questioner also asked whether, given the suffering in the world, "Why does He destroy the whole thing?"
Yes, God could dissolve this creation; some say, in fact, that he does every 4 billion years or so (like night and day cycles). But then it just continues later. Let us step back, however, towards the "big picture."
God is the novelist, the playwright, who sets into motion a grand drama whose purpose is to entertain and to play the divine romance of "hide 'n seek." He doesn't want us to suffer but if the show is to go on He can't simply make us puppets and pull all the strings. The show would be a sham. He is hoping his children will wake up and seek Him behind the curtain of maya but the show won't work unless he gives us both the freedom to choose, and at the same time, makes the drama of life real and enticing enough to make it unique and dramatic. As a result, He knows that it is difficult to "find Him."
We think of life in terms of our physical body. It lives a mere 80 years. Yet this universe has existed for untold billions of years and consists, we are told, of an estimated 200 billion galaxies. Maybe, therefore, we need to take a longer view. If there is no known center of the universe (and even if there were, what difference would it make to me), maybe the real center is, as Jesus said it is, "within you?"
Maybe as the great sages have averred and as thousands of lives have offered tangible proof or hints of, we have lived for many lives: indeed, many more lives than we can even imagine. We can't imagine 200 billion galaxies, so of course it would be extremely difficult to imagine thousands, even billions, of lives. It is taught that we have come up through the stages of evolution. Paramhansa Yogananda even said he could recall an incarnation as a diamond!
So could the cause for suffering, even for those who otherwise appear (in this lifetime) as innocent, be traced to a distant past? With so many lives, who can imagine we've been "saints" the whole time? "There but for the grace of God, go I!" Can you not imagine being a criminal? A murderer?
In the Old Testament Book of Job, Job was a righteous man. But Satan made a bet (imagine!) with God, that deprived of his health, family, wealth, and respect, he would denounce God.......just like so many people do when suffering. Job passed the test and remained faithful to God. This story, weird as it may seem, suggests to us that some of our tests may be permitted in order to test and purify our love for God. These reflect our relationship with God and are as much God's grace as His consolation and inner peace, or other many gifts of the Spirit, are.
Paramhansa Yogananda taught that "all conditions are neutral; it is our reaction to them that determines our happiness, our wisdom, and our peace of mind." Remaining in the God's eye view of this drama, we find ourselves increasingly untouched by what he called "the crash of breaking worlds."
I agree, however, that no explanation can satisfy the sense that it's bad deal for us. Paramhansa Yogananda said he used to "argue with God" that as He made this mess, he has to clean it up. But, to no avail. Yogananda said he knows why but nonetheless he also knows we suffer so. The deep compassion of the avatars for us impels them to return lifetime after lifetime, forgoing the bliss of union with God, to endure the "slings and arrows" of ignorance and persecution and troubles to uplift humanity and free disciples.
Suffering gives thoughtful people more than cause for anger or puzzlement; it also gives us an incentive to seek the answer to life's riddle. For we know perfectly well that life is a gift and the gift is good! But then there's pesky thing called suffering!
The real question isn't so much "Why does God permit suffering" but the more practical one: "What do I do about it?" We have the freedom and therefore we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to solve the riddle of life by our own efforts. When we unite those efforts and direct those questions to God (being willing to pay whatever price the great pearl of truth may cost us), then He responds.
Indeed, one of the great themes of Krishna's discourse in the Bhagavad Gita is that we must act in this world. In other words, we must take responsibility for the conditions in which we find ourselves. We don't need to know the "why." A soldier on the battlefield cannot focus on the reasons for the war or even the overall strategy for the battle. He must fight to defend himself and defeat the foe right in front of him.
No great scripture or teacher fails to counsel us to adhere to righteous action. Right attitude and action are like levers that trigger the divine response in the form and the power of grace. When we are uplifted and protected we know, in that state, that this power doesn't come from us. Yet, we had to initialize the relationship and the flow of energy toward superconsciousness (God-consciousness).
At first we read books, talk to people, go to teachers. But in time as our ardor blossoms into the flower of faithful devotion, He sends us a true guru: one who can help us achieve freedom from endless rounds of birth and death (and suffering).
Make each day an effort to know, love and serve God in the silence of your soul and in the hands of your daily service, guided by wisdom and compassion.
"God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son to redeem it." That son is, at first the guru, but in time it is the our very own soul, a child of God, for this is who and what we are. God knows that we suffer and wants to help us but most people are too busy with the playthings and troubles of this world to seek Him, not for making our mud puddle nicer, but for His love alone.
May the LIght of Truth and the Moon of Divine Love guide your footsteps to His bliss,
Nayaswami Hriman

Monday, February 4, 2013

Essence of the Bhagavad Gita

Essence of the Bhagavad Gita

India’s most beloved scripture consists of one chapter of the world’s longest epic story, the Mahabharata. This chapter of some seven hundred verses is composed as a dialogue between Lord Krishna and his disciple, Prince Arjuna. It takes place as they are sitting in Arjuna’s chariot surveying the opposing armies: theirs, the Pandavas (think, “good guys in white helmets”) and the Kauravas, (the quintessential “bad guys”).

Of course the scene is allegorical although the battle of Kurukshetra is considered a historical one. The exhortation to do battle is a metaphor for the battle of life to which the soul is called in its mission to seek freedom through reuniting its consciousness with that of its Creator.

As each culture is divinely guided to its highest potential, it is curious to contemplate that the Hindu “Bible” is a call to war while the Christian bible (New Testament) is a call to “turn the other cheek.” East and West, respectively, embody certain attitudes that would do well to seek balance: the one, perhaps too passive; the other, too aggressive.

The are many great themes in this wonderful scripture for the instruction of souls in all times and places . Among the themes in the Gita (that I will explore in a 3-week class series—see below) are the soul’s very first encounter with suffering and good and evil. Arjuna, seeing that the opposing forces consist of his very own cousins with whom he was raised, questions the rightness of killing them in battle. Are they not, his very own?

Did not Jesus ask, “Who are my family but those who walk the path toward God with me?” The "family" may be taken literally as one’s birth family who typically resists the effort to dedicate oneself to the search for God. Or, more deeply and more importantly, the "family" is our  own subconscious material desires. The soul, upon reaching adolescence or early adulthood, comes face to face with the need to separate himself from his past in order to begin his spiritual journey aligning the conscious mind towards the guidance of superconscious (guru) mind. And yet, this past, these familiar traits, are my “family!”

Krishna eschews all sentimentality and urges his devotee to take up his “bow” and fight in this just and noble cause -- the very purpose of our creation. All habits and traits which are of the ego are never killed but their energies transmuted and sublimated into higher forms, just as in the teaching of the law of karma and reincarnation, the soul never dies but is simply reborn into new forms. In the wilderness and silence of meditation, we don’t “die” but in fact are reborn into the kingdom of the soul’s consciousness. 

Our fears are groundless -- that without our past, subconscious or ego affirming traits there is no "I." But everyone must confront this existential dilemma face-to-face.

What, then, Arjuna asks, is right action? How can you know what is right or wrong? Outwardly it is difficult, Krishna admits, but that action which is not in pursuit of ego-motivated results, which is offered to God in self-offering and devotion and with no thought of personal gain, will guide us to the heights of Self-realization more surely than any other.

The grace of God and guru, the preceptor, must be sought in silent, inner communion and in righteous outward action. In attunement with the silent flow of grace and wisdom, which like the quiet sound of oil pouring from a drum, guides our thoughts, feelings, and actions, we will sail our raft of life toward the seemingly distant shores of freedom.

The greatest wisdom is found through the practice of yoga: silence of mind and body in contemplation of the divine Presence. The greatest action is that which is offered without thought of self in devotion at the feet of Infinity. The greatest feeling is love for God and for God in all, given without condition and expressed in daily life with humility, compassion, and the wisdom of the soul.

Krishna gives Arjuna a taste of his overarching, infinite consciousness as Spirit but the experience proves so overwhelming that Arjuna at last asks to see his beloved friend, Krishna, again! Thus it is that we do best if we approach God in form: as the preceptor, or in the impersonal forms of love, light, sound, peace, etc., or in the form of a beloved deity. The abstract thought of infinity is too much for the human mind and heart to bear, much less to love.

Much, much more wisdom is shared in the Gita: the qualities of nature and consciousness and how to distinguish the higher from the lower, whether in religion or in daily life.

Tuesday night, at the East West Bookshop, 7:30 p.m., February 5 (12, & 19th), I will share these beloved teachings with friends. My text is Swami Kriyananda’s most inspired work, based on the wisdom of Paramhansa Yogananda, Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, (Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City). We will film the series and the hope is to make it available online at a future date.

Blessings to you,

Nayaswami Hriman

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Is Atheism Practical? Unsound?

Is Atheism Practical? Unsound?

[[ERRATA]] : My apologies: I mixed two quotes from Martin Luther King in my original blog. It was violence that he described as "immoral." In a paper he wrote in 1950 he described atheism as shown below.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described atheism as both “philosophically unsound and impractical.” 

Agnosticism I can relate to, at least on the basis that an honest (if simplistic) assessment of human realities can find no sensory evidence of the Deity. To say, therefore, “I don’t know” is to leave open the possibility rather than to join the ranks of dogmatists, both atheists and religionists in hotly declaring a belief or nonbelief in a reality that neither can prove nor disprove to the other.

My impression of at least some self-declared atheists is that they object to the depiction of a personal and vindictive God foisted on us by dyed-in-the-wool believers. If you can re-direct the atheist’s attention to the beauties of nature, the vastness and awe-inspiring complexities and antiquity of creation, the gift of human love, charity, and self-sacrifice, you will sometimes find a closet deist who worships the Unseen Hand by another name or form. I don’t mean to paint all atheists with the same brush, but in my experience this depiction describes some, perhaps many — those aghast or traumatized by the atrocities or hypocrisy of orthodox religionists.

Science may be devoid of faith or feeling but scientists are not. Too many are the Deist reflections of Albert Einstein, for example, for anyone to insist that the greatest scientists lack feeling, reverence or awe in contemplation of the mysteries of life and the natural world.

Paramhansa Yogananda, renowned author of “Autobiography of a Yogi,” came to live in the United States from India in 1920. He admired the material progress, genius, and good works of western scientists and, as if applying their methods to solving the riddle of human existence, asked for what purpose are we impelled to survive? That we seek to survive is far too obvious to question. But why? What is it we seek? And by what means do we find success and by what means do we fail? His inquiry into the mystery of our existence proceeded, like that of men and women of science, from observation and measurement, not from a priori declarations of absolute or revealed truth.

The ancient Greek sages averred that man’s highest duty is “To know thyself.” One such sage, Protagoras, shocked his contemporaries with the statement that “Man is the measure of all things.” In modern times the well known Indian sage of Arunachala hill, Ramana Maharshi, advised seekers to ask, “Who am I?”

If science teaches us that the universe is both incomprehensibly vast and yet without any known center or direction, we have seemingly two choices for humanity: we are either nothing (and life therefore is without meaning), or, we are, indeed, the “measure of all things.” This latter direction has, itself, two directions: I can join with the ranks of twentieth century existentialists in declaring that my ego is the center of the universe and my desires and impulses are the sole measure of truth for me; or, I can go in the direction of Jesus Christ and the Yogi-Christs of India when Jesus declared, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.”

At this point in human history we’ve yet to find life forms such as ourselves from other planets but given the estimate of 200 billion galaxies, I must supposed that the odds are greater than 100% that they must exist. 

But inasmuch as that inquiry must remain, for now, only speculative, let us turn to the human experience, then, for our inquiry.

The ancient scriptures of India admit that “God cannot be proved.” So, let us also take from them this admission and follow Jesus’ advice and Yogananda’s line of inquiry for the Holy Grail.

Yogananda started with the observation that what all men seek is happiness. Pleasure, yes, too, but that is easily experienced as fleeting and even counterproductive to lasting happiness as sensory indulgence, unless held in check, can destroy health and happiness. Held even in check, pleasure, moreover, is fleeting and even in its midst a reflective person feels its unreality (because based in perception and anticipation) and its limited span of fulfillment. Observation of human pleasure reveals that its pursuit can be addictive and overtake the good judgment, common sense, and human values of its votaries. Disease, harmful emotions, and premature aging await those who fall victim to the pursuit of pleasure as the summum bonum of life’s existence.

Human happiness is usually sought and seen in human love, cherished family ties, financial success and security, prestige, position, fame, talent, or beauty. But these are like prostitutes: loyal to no one. Observation of the facts easily discloses that those who achieve one or more such pinnacles of human happiness too often find the summit to be cold, windy, desolate, dull, fleeting or elusive. At the top there is nowhere to go but down and furiously scrambling up the mountain sides just below you are hordes of competitors and unseen snipers of  death, disease, or betrayal lurking in the shadows below.

None of these easily observable realities and shortcomings of pleasure or human happiness seem to deter the billions of human beings on this planet from seeking their elusive gains. Perhaps it is lack of wisdom, lack of refinement of feeling, lack of the knowledge of a viable alternative or the hypnosis of the allure of these achievements that blind mankind to our own greater potential for true happiness.

Never mind the question of how did this all come about and why. Never mind the fact that the created universe veritably shouts the existence of an overarching Intelligence and Purpose and that the odds of all of this coming into existence randomly is patently absurd, or that the question of the existence of Consciousness belies our very inquiry into it.

Each person can experiment as scientifically as the armies of white lab-coated technicians and their test tubes on what brings them true, lasting and satisfying happiness and contentment. Never mind the cosmos, for now. It seems to get along fine without us.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law — to the strength of the spirit.”

It is not difficult to discover for oneself that a selfish life is shortsighted and brings unhappiness and pain. An unselfish life, applied with common sense and balance, brings harmony and satisfaction. Heroes show themselves willing to give their lives that others may live free. Humanitarians, great leaders and reformers, and saints in all lands show that the way to inner peace and contentment is to live for high ideals and for the greatest good of all. The calm, inward gaze away from material objects and toward the intangible but life sustaining gifts of wisdom, compassion, creativity, selflessness, and devotion to the Creator are proof positive against the ceaseless flux of changing customs, conquerors, disease, war, and hatred.

Life goes on, as Gandhi and King would often put it, and proves that death, disease, and destruction cannot prevail.

How do these self-discoveries relate, then, to the existence of God? Take the journey and see for yourself. 

But along the way consider those whose lives you are following in your experiments with truth (living an unselfish life). What do these heroes and heroines say?

If what the great ones teach us is so obvious, why do so few take the higher path? The higher path requires climbing the mountain and going through the brambles of habit, upbringing, and the ego’s insistence that the body and personality must be satisfied first lest by unselfishness they suffer. And suffer they will, if we listen to them.

Moreover, the selfish life also calls to us, both from our dark past and from the sheer magnetism and allure of its fleeting or dark satisfactions. The great scourge of human happiness is addiction to sense satisfactions, enabled and empowered especially by the power of wealth, possessions, and influence.

The take up of the high road requires the give up of the easy, but descending path, toward the jungle of survival of the fittest ego and towards the swamp of mortal death, disease, and old age. To one whose gaze is fixed upon the greater reality and good of all life, the mortality and frailty of the human body and insecure ego are but universal realities  that we are challenged to “get over it.”

To paraphrase Paramhansa Yogananda and a vision he had of Divine Mother, “Dance of life and dance of death, know that these come from Me.” Fear not for they have no lasting reality for Spirit to Spirit goes, unfettered by matter’s ceaseless flux from form to energy and energy back to form.

Let us return then to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his labeling of atheism as unsound and impractical. I cannot claim to know his thoughts in this statement, but I believe his thoughts derive from the loss of the polestar of higher Self from which to guide one’s life. During his brief life (‘50’s and ‘60’s) post-war materialism and atheism (and the power and threat of communism based upon both), existentialism, together with amateurish interpretations of scientific discoveries and speculations such as chaos theory and relativity, were associated with what would be seen as the breakdown of morality and the rise of atheism and belief in the meaninglessness of life.

Atheism as a rejection of religious dogmas was not yet widely understood. King lived in a time of rebellion, both positive and negative. Thus Martin Luther King, Jr. both devout and deeply religious (in a nonsectarian way) and a deep thinker concerned with the trends of modern culture, would describe atheism as unsound. 

Atheism would be seen as impractical in contrast to how he saw his crusades for social justice as eminently practical in their methods but as justified in the perception of all men as children of God. That an agnostic or atheist might be a humanist, a proponent of an enlightened self-interest, or a pragmatist taking his cue from the scientific establishment of the interdependency of all living things and upon what might be called traditional Stoicism (a morality based on human values including moderation and self-sacrifice) would not have occurred to King or his religious contemporaries. (A Stoic sees that life brings both pleasure and pain, life and death, and taking the long view steps back from the pursuit of false and fleeting experiences to remain calm, dignified, and self-sacrificing, following what we might call the Golden Rule.)

It may well be that an atheist turns to the enlightenment of reason but as there are “no atheists in fox holes,” an atheist who holds fast and true to humanist ideals in the face of personal suffering, conflict, betrayal, humiliation or self-sacrifice is something much more than a mere atheist. Such virtue would not, in my opinion, derive from atheism but from a deeper and intuitive sense of justice and righteousness that no mere non-belief in a deity could suffice to sustain. Well, that’s my opinion. Taking this further, then, loss of moral judgment would not be a far step from one whose only anchor was this lack of a belief.

As studies have shown that those with a strong and abiding faith heal from surgery or illness faster, and cope with dying with greater aplomb, faith in God is already showing itself (using scientific methods of observation) to be practical. Faith-based communities, too, often show themselves effectively serving the ideals and good of society in ways no legislation or taxation could possibly achieve.

None of this is for the purpose of convincing a self-described atheist or agnostic to “come over to the other side.” Such a journey is like a river that runs silent and runs deep. But the impracticality of such a position, and its potential to lead to selfish behavior, productive of unhappiness, is surely worthy of consideration. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. are certainly worth pondering.


Nayaswami Hriman

P.S. For an inspired and insightful explanation for Yogananda's "thesis" and modern thought, I direct your attention to two works by J. Donald Walters (aka Swami Kriyananda): "Out of the Labyrinth" and "Hope for a Better World." (Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA)