Gopala Bhatta Goswami’s gifts to the Vaishnava community

gopala-bhatta-gosvami

So today we’re marking the life of a great saint in our tradition who lived 500 years ago. He was the son of a Sri Vaishnava brahmana, Venkata Bhatta, and was born in a village near the famous temple town of Sri Rangam, on the banks of the Kaveri River.

Born around 1500 AD, he was 11 years old when Sri Chaitanya ‘the great master’ came and stayed with his family for the four months of the rainy season. His father served Chaitanya meals and washed his feet out of profound respect for his guest.

During his time with them, Sri Chaitanya told them about love for the Supreme in the form of Radha-Krishna. Venkata Bhatta and his family listened with affection, as did the brothers Trimalla and Prabodhananda. Chaitanya asked the young Gopala to come and meet him in Vrindavan when he could.

When he was 30 years old and his parents had departed, Gopala Bhatta came to live in the Vrindavan region with the two brothers, Rupa and Sanatana, who treated him like a family member. Chaitanya was very pleased to hear that, 19 years later, Gopala had come to Vrindavan. He sent him his wooden sitting place and some of his garments, which the young man was overjoyed to receive.

Sadly, only four years later, Chaitanya himself was to depart and Gopala was deeply saddened. One night he had a dream of Chaitanya who told him that if wanted his darshan he should go to Nepal. Once there, Gopala Bhatta took bath in the cold Kali-Gandaki river whereupon some small black, round stones came into his water pot. Placing them back in the water three times he decided that these Vishnu stones, or shaligram shila, actually wished to come with him. So he took 12 of them with him back to Vrindavan.

On the day of Narasimha Chaturdasi a rich man came to Vrindavan and gave the sadhus cloth and jewellery for their deities. Gopala spread these items before his shilas and prayed that he might have a Lord to whom these items could be offered.

The next morning, after his bath, he saw that the largest stone had changed shape, manifesting as a form of child Krishna with flute-playing hands raised and feet gracefully crossed.

In 1542 Gopala Bhatta opened the temple for his lord Radha Ramana and to this day worship has continued at a very high standard. The continuity of archana has been accomplished by a line of family descendants. Although Gopala had no sons, and his disciple Gopinatha never married, Gopinatha’s brother Damodara had three sons: Harinatha, Mathuranatha and Harirama. From them came the priestly and family line which exists in its 18th generation today.

Gopala Bhatta was asked by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to help Rupa and Sanatana write books, so he took to the task seriously. His contribution was immense. His speciality was the culture of service and worship of the temple image, and the rules and rituals of daily life of the Vaishnavas.

He wrote a treatise on temple worship based upon the ancient Pancharatra procedures he’d witnessed in his youth. It was titled the Laghu Hari Bhakti Vilasa. Later. Sanatana expanded it and kindly put Gopala’s name to it, although Gopala only claimed that he wrote the introduction. This book was the Hari Bhakti Vilasa, and from this, some sections of the later book by Rupa Goswami, the Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu, were formed.

For those with children, Vedic culture has all manner of ceremonies for the various life stages. These involve various rituals and fire sacrifices and are known as samskaras. Although most of them invoke the blessings of the gods, Gopala Bhatta wrote a new treatise on samskaras that worshipped only Vishnu. Indeed the first section of the book goes into great detail as to why only Vishnu is to be worshipped. This book is known as the Sat Kriya Sar Dipika.

One of Gopala Bhatta’s disciples was Srinivasa Acarya, who famously formed the first party of book distributors and preachers along with Narottama and Shyamananda.

Gopala Bhatta Goswami lived for some 45 years in Vrindavan and his legacy lives on today in the form of ISKCON’s temple ritual and ceremony, it’s publications and its daily Vaishnava sadacara.

When Sri Chaitanya was in Sri Rangam, he fashioned vigraha of Jagannatha Swami, or Lord Krishna as he had seen him in Puri. These three small images are still worshipped today, just over the road from the home of the present day descendants of Venkata Bhatta. The Sri Radha Ramana temple is well known in Vrindavan and can be visited daily, and especially for evening darshan. The original cloth of Chaitanya can be viewed on one day every year.

 

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Peace in the Middle East? Not unless the children are peaceful.

children england

The essential principle of progressive, civilised human life is to restrain negative emotions within oneself and to limit their discharge towards others; and to cultivate positive emotions such as tolerance, compassion and non-violence. Lust, greed and anger are the three gates leading to Hell, reads the ancient Bhagavad-gita.

Perpetuating negative emotions leads to a permanent negative state within a person, and negativity throughout a society when it is made up predominantly of such persons. “So the single rice grain, so the pot of rice.”

We radiate an emotional state when we don’t make efforts to control it; we can’t help it. All others who contact us are affected by our unchecked emotions. And we do a great disservice to our children if we force them to imbibe our negativity.

So imagine the consequences when an entire society cultivates these very negative qualities within its children – through the educational system itself. Peace in the Middle East? Not when the emotions of the children are being systematically slaughtered.

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Taking Christ out of Christmas

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Although I have been travelling around England recently, I’ve been following the ongoing dispute about the Church of England’s attempt to promote prayer by commissioning a 54-second film – a cinema advertisement, so to speak, for The Lord’s Prayer. The  was designed to be shown before the new Star Wars film. At the last minute the cinema chain stopped the film from being shown – even though it had been approved by the relevant advertising body. It gave as a reason that it ‘might be offensive to some people.’

I despair at the state my country has got itself into. Just coming up to Christmas, who on earth would find a short piece about Christian prayer ‘offensive?’ It might be better to show the ad and then let those who are so offended reveal themselves.

Yesterday I was in Leicester, and right opposite the back door of our temple is the Town Hall. The imposing brick building has the very largest, flashing, green neon **Merry Christmas** sign I have ever seen. Leicester has, as many will know, the largest population of Hindus in the country, outside London. As far as I know, not one Hindu has ever begrudged this overt celebration of Christmas. Hinduism is a broad and diverse collection of religious strands, and is inclusive, appreciating all attempts to serve and know God.

Those who recognise that the same God is being worshipped, despite the differences in names used by the worshippers, will acknowledge  and appreciate the paths of everyone, giving them freedom to express their deepest feelings of faith. And those who recognise the importance of religion, generally, in preserving morality and order in society, will welcome the range of human emotions that comes along with worship, particular the celebration of festivals. It is very sad that we seem to have taken the wrong turn in our understanding of freedom of religion and expression.

To make these cinematic religious matters slightly more complex, the short film Sanjay’s Superteam, by Toy Story makers Pixar, is now being shown in some cinemas just before their new film The Good Dinosaur. The short film features, in cartoon forms, Lord Vishnu, Hanuman and Durga. While I’m delighted that the names and forms of the deities are being broadcast, I am troubled that we seem to be relentlessly diminishing the religion that has been the foundation of much good in this country. The problem is that intolerance toward Christianity in the name of preserving the peace will be followed by more intolerant behaviour in the future.

It is understandable that people look for new forms of religious expression as they tire of old forms. The path of Bhakti seems to be attracting the attention of seekers everywhere. Krishna is mentioned by the bad character in the trailer for another superhero movie: X-Men Apocalypse. The anti-hero introduces himself by saying: “I have been called many things over many lifetimes, Rama, Krishna, Yahweh…”

There may be many more occasions where Bhakti makes an appearance in popular culture. Certainly, there is a great variety of rich culture to be mined in the search for new forms of spiritual expression. I do feel, however, that religion itself must be protected, so that even the concepts preserved by those faiths do not disappear from our conversations. That would be a sad world. Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Visiting the Ashram

For some years I have had a collection of books from a variety of religious traditions. I also have a few from the community I was brought up in, the Methodist Church. One book – one amongst many – is this volume, by one John J. Vincent.

LetsBeMethodists

As life and fate arrange it, I went to Sheffield last week and was introduced to the author himself. The Ashram Community Trust is a Christian organisation in Sheffield, Yorkshire which was founded in 1965. The group runs many welfare, educational, and health food projects in the city. Its founder, the Reverend Dr. John Vincent, former head of the Methodist Conference, has made a lifetime study of the theology of discipleship according to the Bible. He is also a doctoral advisor on a PhD course run by the Urban Theology Unit, also founded by him.

He has been quite prolific in his writing and tireless in his community building through the years. Now in his eighth decade – but still going out for a morning run – he continues to help others with his depth of wisdom and experience. On a visit to Sheffield I presented him with a copy of my The Guru & Disciple Book which he said he would read with great interest.

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Guru and Disciple: Hundreds of copies already sold

blue books

So I published my book in August, just a modest run of 500 copies. They’ve almost all gone. Thank you to all those who showed me support and bought one. And congratulations to you if you bought one as a gift for a friend.

Just to stimulate discussion, and to perhaps interest you, dear reader, in buying one before they all go, here are the Contents pages. You’ll see I have not flinched in discussing some controversial topics, chiefly because there’s a readership for those types of subjects. The Guru & Disciple Book is available on Amazon – now at a reduced rate – in both UK and USA.

Contents

Part One: Putting first things first

  1. You are Here – Why our home-made map of life may require updating.
  2. Five Tales – Classic tales from the Upanishads suggest that a change of perspective may be necessary before spiritual life can begin.
  3. Understanding the Vedas – There are two classical ways of gathering knowledge; only one is good enough for spiritual transmission between the guru and the disciple.
  4. What are the Vedas? – A look at the numerous components of a vast library of wisdom.
  5. The Vedas and other religions – Ultimate reality is one, perceived differently only due to the different consciousness of the seers.
  6. Discussing and understanding the Sources – Original texts, commentaries and mystical revelation. How to avoid fuzzy thinking.
  7. Postmodern Views – Postmodernism affects everything – even the guru-disciple relationship.
  8. The Necessity of accepting a Guru – Why other ways of gaining higher knowledge are incomplete.

Part Two: The ancient culture of learning

  1. A is for Acarya – The meaning of the word and the ancient culture of how acaryas lived and taught.
  2. Siksha, Diksha, and Semantic Drift – More meanings of words and how they’ve gradually changed.
  3. Diksha – The history of giving mantras; what happens at the diksha ceremony; and what has changed in a thousand years.
  4. Qualities of the Guru and the Disciple – A classical description from the Nyasa Vimsati, the lifetime experience of the mediaeval Vaishnava saint, Vedanta Deshika.
  5. What does a guru teach? – Guru means ‘teacher,’ but what is he supposed to teach you, and how often? How do you know if he is teaching you correctly? How do you know if you are a good student?
  6. Teaching techniques of the gurus – Gurus employ a diverse range of time-tested techniques in order to help their disciples on their spiritual journey.
  7. The Reprehensible Delusions of Guruship – Four ways the guru should not think about himself – or his disciple. Wisdom from the ancient sage, Pillai Lokacarya.
  8. Where can you find a guru? – Lord Krishna told Arjuna to ‘approach’ a guru. But where can you find one? Here is what Krishna said years later, as recorded in the eleventh canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam.
  9. Within You, Without You – How God manifests as the guru, both inside and out.
  10. Little Ants on a Leaping Lion – Who is more important for the disciple – the physically manifest guru or the historical acarya? The discussion continues after 900 years.
  11. The Parampara Family Tree – How the best fruit is gently carried down through the branches of the tree.
  12. A Very Different Diksha – Misconceptions and movements. How the grandfathers of contemporary Vaishnavism tackled ‘mission drift.’

Part Three: Creating and sustaining community

  1. The Guru spreads his Arms – His ashrams, sanghas, missions and movements.
  2. Not Everybody likes Organisations – Why we don’t like ‘organised religion,’ and prefer small groups to big ones.
  3. Sustainability and Governance – Why hierarchy and ‘due diligence’ are essential – even in spiritual movements.
  4. Are you Church or Chapel? – Religious groups constantly divide and splinter, but by keeping a tradition spiritually dynamic, we can avoid the temptation of separation.

Part Four: Shades of saffron

  1. Sannyasa Dharma – Ancient rules for a renunciate and the ten vows he must make.
  2. Sannyasa – the Real and the False – Real sannyasa is internal, and goes beyond the wearing of saffron robes. So why was it important for Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakur?
  3. Undercurrents – The Gaudiya Mission was enormously successful, yet beneath the surface there were already swirling currents.
  4. White Skin, Orange Cloth – The many challenges in setting up a western sannyasa order from 1967 to 1977.
  5. Saffron Cardinals – An order of renunciates as ecclesiastics, and the phenomenon of ‘clergy burnout.’
  6. Reflections and Reforms – Sannyasis who became gurus share their private thoughts.

Part Five: Gurus, scandals and issues

  1. Why would anyone be a guru? – Discussing why, and how, the decision is made to accept disciples.
  2. Gurus of the Future – Srila Prabhupada speaks clearly on how he wants his disciples to become gurus after him.
  3. The July 9th Letter – In the 1980s certain members of ISKCON raised this one letter to the level of a religious text.
  4. So what went wrong? – The turbulent years after the passing of the founder-acarya threatened to wrench his movement apart. What mistakes were made?
  5. Stepping into their father’s shoes – Some of the complications of being a young guru in an even younger spiritual movement.
  6. Diksha Lite – In a bid to attract followers, some gurus offer initiation without training.
  7. Diksha and Drugs – In the name of ‘compassion,’ some gurus try to have disciples without discipline.
  8. Guru and Disciple in Therapy – In which we subject the guru-disciple relationship to an hour on the therapist’s couch.
  9. When the Wise become Weak – It does happen, sadly, so what should be our response? How can it be avoided?
  10. Loyal Disciple…or a mouse? – The guru repeats what he’s heard or loses his power.
  11. Leaving a Guru – Can you ever leave? What are the legitimate reasons?

Part Six: Becoming a disciple today

  1. Steps towards the Big Step – Spiritual life is a journey of a thousand steps. Where is initiation on that journey, and how do we prepare for it?
  2. Are you ready for a guru? – What should you look for within yourself before initiation? What doubts and myths about the guru have to be dissolved first?
  3. Serious to find a guru – Srila Prabhupada and his own guru write on how to find one.
  4. Testing the guru – No-one should blindly accept a guru. The candidate is first meant to test the guru. But how, exactly, and for how long?
  5. The Path to Initiation – How to become initiated in ISKCON today. Stages in the procedure and the support you’ll need to have in place.

 

 

 

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Wolf in sheep’s clothing

WOLF-IN-SHEEPS-CLOTHING-2

I’ve been reading the news about the increasing violence in Jerusalem this week, and it seems to be surpassing much of what’s been happening for years. The wave of horrific daily stabbings is far more brutal than ever seen before, and the number of people being killed at bus stops by crazed car drivers far outstrips the former randomness of such crimes. Why the sudden escalation?

It’s almost as if the activities of the IS in Syria and Iraq, made well known by their warped publicity department, has made other Islamists in the region much more brutal. And Mahmoud Abbas raising the Palestinian flag in a garden near the UN, and his constant inflammatory rhetoric, no doubt fanned the flames.

It’s not my business to comment on politics, especially of those countries I’ve never visited. But it is my business – at least I make it my business – to comment on religion-related issues. The Middle East is a political phenomenon disguised as a religious issue. As in most cases of this kind, it is not that the most pious and religious people are involved in making the political decisions. More often, it is the angriest politicians that cloak themselves in religious rhetoric that rise to the top of the social heap.

The so-called religious flashpoint is the Temple Mount / Al Aqsa Mosque, supposedly the ‘third holiest place for Muslims.’ Even though the location of Mohammed’s ‘night journey’ is nowhere mentioned in the Koran, and even though it was probably an invention of Saladdin to bolster his reasons for invading Jerusalem; and even though it is most surely a legacy of the historical Islamic preference to build mosques over the most sacred places of other people’s religions (please see Bethlehem, Ayodhya, Mathura, and numerous other sites in India).

The Bhagavad-gita is a conversation about religion that was recorded before the beginning of Islam. It therefore has absolutely nothing to say about Islam. But it does have an interesting take on how a mental state can spread among people, inducing the masses to share an emotion that by themselves they may never have experienced. Socialised emotion, you might call it. The Gita explains that the enemy of all of us is lust, the intense desire to reach out with one of the senses and control a material object (or a person who has been objectified) and enjoy it. The concomitant emotions are greed and anger. Indeed, says the speaker of the Gita, Sri Krishna, those three emotions, lust greed and anger, are ‘the gates leading to hell.’

Anything that inflames lust, greed and anger is the antithesis of religion and the enemy of spiritual progress. Anger-inducing religion is thus the very opposite of factual religion – a wolf in lamb’s clothing – and is the enemy of spiritual progress.

I also read this and thought I’d share it you: http://www.wsj.com/articles/palestine-the-psychotic-stage-1444692875

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Groundbreaking ceremony at Parsippany, New Jersey

brahma puja

There’s a very old tradition of rituals in our Hare Krishna movement. Rather than being what people sometimes describe as ‘empty rituals,’ they are ceremonial offerings of service to the Divine, pleasing to the eye and ear, and satisfying to the heart. On a daily basis we keep them quite simple, but on special occasions we can create very elaborate and colourful festivals. The groundbreaking ceremony for the building of a new temple is one such occasion. A fire sacrifice is held, and a small statue of Ananta Sesha is buried deep down in the earth, directly beneath where the main altar will be.

This week, one such ceremony took place in Parsippany, New Jersey. It’s an important event because new temples come once in a lifetime for a community, particularly one built in a traditional style. You can see a short video here.

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Vamanadeva!

 

Lord Vamanadeva appeared within this world from the womb of Aditi, the mother of the gods. He appeared at midday on the shravan-dvadasi, the 12th day of the lunar month of Shravan when the moon is waxing.

There are many lessons for Vaishnavas to learn from the narration of His activities, as found in the 8th canto, 18th chapter of the Bhagavat Purana (Srimad Bhagavatam). Amongst the lessons are these:

1. That God comes to this world in many forms; not just once, in one form, or even many times in the same form, but many times in many forms. He is never limited by the form, but remains all powerful.

2. That all other gods are meant to offer homage to Him. They did this when, appearing as a young child, he was awarded the sacred thread by Brihaspati, the guru of the gods. The sun god gave Him the Gayatri mantra and His father, Kasyapa Muni, a straw belt. Mother Earth gave Him a deerskin and Lord Brahma gave Him a waterpot. Kuvera, the heavenly treasurer gave Him a monk’s begging bowl, and the wife of Lord Shiva gave Him the first alms. In this way, the gods all offered the best of what they had to the Supreme God. Each of us, in our own way, must also give the best of what we own – our talents, intelligence, words and wealth – as a gift to that same God. He gave it to us along with our birth, and we can offer ot back to Him.

3. Upon seeing the lad from a distance, King Bali noticed his remarkable sun-like effulgence. He welcomed Him and washed His feet. Thinking of himself as a great proprietor of the Earth, Bali then asked Vamanadeva what He would like to be given in charity, as this was the custom of the king. Vamana replied that He only wanted three paces of land, as measured by His own short steps. The king smiled at the thought of such a small request. He was soon to discover that just as God comes in disguise, so His requests to us are often disguised as simple acts of devotion. Many people smile at the thought that God asks us for only three words: Hare, Krishna, and Rama, spoken as a mantra. But as we speak those three small words we begin to realise that He is changing our life forever from within our hearts.

4.Vamanadeva teaches Bali that enlightened human beings are meant to be satisfied with what comes to them. Those who are not satisfied with what they actually need will never be satisfied, even if they gain the whole Earth. And a man or a woman practising the spiritual life must never be dissatisfied, for by such dissatisfaction they sprinkle water on the inner fire of their spiritual potency.

5. Bali Maharaja’s guru, Sukracarya. was perceptive enough to understand what was happening, who the young boy was, and what was about to happen. But he counselled the king to deny the request, even though he knew that it was Vishnu Himself asking. Thus Sukra was an atheist, even though learned in the Vedas. Such a guru, who stands in the way of his disciple’s emancipation, is fit to be rejected.

6. Bali turns to his guru and says that telling lies, or not keeping a promise once spoken, is the most sinful act. He explains that Mother Earth once said:  ” I can bear any heavy thing except a person who is a liar.” Therefore, a person living according to dharma must scrupulously avoid lying.

7. He explains that the opportunity to give in charity to a qualified, saintly person is very rare. It must never be regarded as a time of loss, but as a moment when auspiciousness is drawn towards the giver. When we give we don’t lose, rather God – and the universe – gives us even more in return.

8. Sukra curses his own disciple, thus revealing the actual relationship that sometimes exists between an official religious priest and a member of the faith.

 

9. Vamana responds to Bali’s promise by expanding his size. Although God may appear as a child, He is the oldest of the old, the immeasurably largest of all large things, and the most powerful of all. This lesson would later be learned by Lord Brahma, who tested the Lord’s power when He appeared as child Krishna. God is also the ultimate owner of everything since everything emanates from Him.

10. Vamana takes His first two steps which, due to His size, encompass the entire cosmos. When He asks where He should place his third promised step, Bali realises that there is only one thing left to give Him – his very self. The king surrenders fully to God at that moment. The surrender of Bali, although offered in a moment of abject desperation, is nonetheless to be emulated by all of us. We don’t own countries, but we do regard ourselves as proprietors of our domestic domains. Most of these, in truth, never quite belong to us legally, and in the grand scheme of things we can claim no factual ownership at all. Death will come very quickly and take everything away from us, so better to give it all to God now. We do this by dedicating everything we own to His service. The result? Curiously enough, the same result that Bali achieved: that we are given everything back and that God draws us nearer to  Him and His eternal abode.

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“No scarcity of acarya…”

 

I have written several times of the need in society for an increased numbers of volunteers to provide good spiritual teaching, pastoral care, encouragement and guidance. Essentially the need for gurus, by whatever nomenclature or sub-category we might wish to call them.

In this clip from 1975, the founder-acarya of the Hare Krishna movement requests his followers to create an organisation of many thousands of such ‘acaryas.’

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The Guru & Disciple Book gets off to a good start

jesus-sending-out-disciples-19th-century-card-modified

Our Lord and the Twelve Disciples was the title of a Victorian print hanging on the wall of my childhood Sunday school in Cornwall. I can still see it now. In different attentive postures, the twelve are gathered around their Master, whose right hand is held in benediction. They are in awe at his divine words, and their closeness to the Son of God indicates their status not merely as followers, but as The Twelve Disciples. That picture had a lasting effect on me. Throughout my childhood, the word disciple always meant those twelve – and only them.

Fast forward a few years and I was in Africa speaking to a large group of Ethiopians. It was from them that I first heard the term nefshabbas, the local term for spiritual teacher or guide. The nefshabbas was ‘the soul-father’ and he guided you on your earthly journey towards God. As a disciple, or daqa of such a spiritual helper one would offer reverence and service in exchange for teaching and guidance. Gradually, I learned that every branch of Christianity had versions of this relationship between master and disciple. In Russian Orthodoxy the guide was the starets and his disciple the uchenik, while in Greece the spiritual elder was the geron. In early Ireland he was the anamcara, or ‘soul friend.’ But it didn’t end there.

I discovered that every spiritual path, every religion, had such a master-disciple relationship for compassionate and friendly instruction. For the Sufi Muslims the murshid or pir was the spiritual guide and the murid his acolyte; while in China the teacher was the shifu and over in Japan he was the roshi. European Jews spoke of the mashpiya as the learned guide, and the tzadik as the saintly master. Discipleship, it seems, is a universal approach to spiritual learning and grace, and knows no geographical or cultural boundaries. The twelve disciples did not have the monopoly on discipleship, after all.

India has embodied the master-disciple relationship in millions of spiritual friendships over thousands of years. Although the ancient Sanskrit language is used to describe it – guru and sishya – India gives us the archetypal form of that vital connection which is familiar to all religious or spiritual traditions. No other country has had such a full and rich history of spirituality taught by such a time-tested method. The very history of that land is made up of gurus and their disciples and the detailed science of spiritual transmission has been preserved intact.

For the path of yoga, the guru and sishya relationship was the only way to effect inner transformation. Becoming a disciple was not an easy life, but for someone who wanted to learn both transcendental knowledge and meditation techniques, and to reap the ample rewards of practising both under the guidance of an expert, it was the singular choice to make. It still is today.

So in my book I try to describe the teaching techniques and relationship dynamics of the guru-disciple connection. I find it a fascinating subject. The book seems to be accessible for readers so far. Over the recent festival weekend we sold 70 copies and the comments have been favourable. In the past few days I’ve been organizing the book’s overseas sales. The distributor Motilal UK is handling sales through Amazon UK, USA and India, and also with Nielsens. I’m exploring well known routes for our Vaishnava community.

 

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