Category Archives: Ritual

What are the Vedas?

rig veda

On October 6th, 1969, in London, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada gave a lecture about the Vedas. He began as follows: “Ladies and gentlemen, today’s subject matter is the teachings of the Vedas. What are the Vedas? The Sanskrit verbal root of veda can be interpreted variously, but the purport is finally one. Veda means knowledge. Any knowledge you accept is veda, for the teachings of the Vedas are the original knowledge…”

The Vedas, Vedangas, Upangas and Upavedas

The Vedas are one body of knowledge divided into four, the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Veda. Each of the four Vedas has several, slightly variant recensions known as sakhas. In each of those sakhas there are three portions: the Samhita, Brahmana, and the Aranyaka.

The Rig Veda contains many Sanskrit hymns of praise directed to many devas or gods, in truth many aspects of the one, single divine. What in later ages became known as slokas, or metrical verses, were originally known as rigs. Each rig is a mantra and a number of such rigs or mantras make up a poem known as a sukta. The Samhita portion of the Rig Veda contains more than ten thousand rigs (10,170 to be precise) grouped into 1028 poems or suktas.

The word Yajur is derived from the word Yaj or worship. The word Yajna, meaning sacrificial worship, is also derived from this stem. The Yajur Veda spells out the ritualistic procedural details of worship whereby all the rigs of the Rig Veda can be employed.

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The word Sama means to ‘make peaceful’ and the Sama Veda contains music to make the gods peaceful and pleased with the worshipper. In order to attain the grace of the gods who are being propitiated, the priest sings the rig mantras to the seven notes of the musical scale rather than the strict upward and downward notes of the Rig Veda chanting.

The Atharva Veda draws its name from the rishi named Atharva who revealed it. The mantras in this Veda are for protection.

The Vedangas are the various ‘limbs’ of the Vedas and include texts on pronunciation of the mantras (Siksha) texts on grammar and poetic metre (Vyakaran and Chanda) as well as a dictionary (Nirukti). Since Vedic yajnas or rituals have to be performed in exactly constructed arenas and according to the phases of the moon and stars there are also handbooks for mathematics, astrology and ritual detail (Jyotish and Kalpa)

The Upangas are the ‘subsidiary limbs’ and consist of texts that support the performance of ritual and the comprehension of their importance and intrinsic philosophical basis. They include Mimamsa, the ‘deep analysis of a subject worthy of reverence,’ Nyaya, the system of logical deduction and analysis of evidence; histories or Purana, and the Dharma Shastras, codes of living for civilised people.

The Dharma Shastras describe household duties, personal work, cleanliness, eating, and ceremonies related to life-cycle events such as weddings and funerals. There are 18 such texts, known as smritis, written by 18 rishis such as Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara, and the smritis all bear their names.

The Upavedas are texts dealing with corollary subjects important for organizing the various features and essential elements of civilized human society. Ayur-veda explains an elaborate system of medicine; the Artha-shastra describes polity and economics; the Dhanur-veda focuses on ethical warfare and the Gandharva-veda teaches music.

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Five Nights of Wisdom

Shesha

The Pancharatra is a group of texts as old as the four Vedas and has the same transcendental origin. They were ancient even in the time of the Lord Krishna’s appearance in this world, and are mentioned in the Shanti-parva section of the Mahabharata.

In that portion a description of the transcendental abode Swetadwipa is given, ‘a domain inhabited by devotees of Narayana, whom they worship through their knowledge of pancha-ratra.’ The name pancha-ratra means ‘Five Nights,’ and indicates a series of instructions given by Lord Narayana to His devotees over five consecutive nights. Narada Muni heard them first and shared them with Lord Shiva, Lakshmi Devi, the Kumaras and others. There are said to be around two hundred texts including the Ahirbudhnya Samhita spoken by Shiva, the Lakshmi Tantra, and the Narada Pancharatra. Srila Prabhupada writes:

The scriptures known as the Pañcarātra-śāstras are recognized Vedic scriptures that have been accepted by the great ācāryas. These scriptures are not products of the modes of passion and ignorance. Learned scholars and brāhmaṇas therefore always refer to them as sātvata-saṁhitās. The original speaker of these scriptures is Nārāyaṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is especially mentioned in the Mokṣa-dharma (349.68), which is part of the Śānti-parva of the Mahābhārata. Liberated sages like Nārada and Vyāsa, who are free from the four defects of conditioned souls, are the propagators of these scriptures. Śrī Nārada Muni is the original speaker of the Pañcarātra-śāstra. (Sri Caitanya Caritamrta 1.5.41)

The theology of the Pancharatra is solely focused on the Personality of Godhead. The texts describe the appearance and character of the Lord, and the many avatars He takes for functions such as creation of the world and deliverance of the conditioned souls. It also describes methods of ritual worship, prayer and the employment of mantras.

When Narada Muni visited his disciple Srila Vyasadeva, he told him that although he’d compiled so much Vedic literature, he had not yet composed the ‘spotless glories of the Supreme Lord.’ So the great rishi set about writing the Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad Bhagavatam. Its 18,000 verses in 350 chapters all tell of the Lord and His devotees, with a full ninety chapters entirely dedicated to the accounts of Krishna’s appearance and activities in the world. In the 11th book of that great work is described what took place when the Supreme Lord Krishna was about to leave the world and return to His eternal abode. Krishna gave His parting instructions to His friend Uddhava, a conversation which is now recorded in the section known as the Uddhava Gita. In chapter 27 the Lord also explains Pancharatra worship.

yantra

Mantra (sacred sound) Yantra (sacred geometry) and Tantra (sacred ritual) are all part of the teaching found in the Pancharatra.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu asked his close follower Sanatana Goswami to compile a handbook for Vaishnava life. The book was to describe everything from the daily activities of a devotee through to temple worship and the celebration of festivals. So with help from the revered Gopala Bhatta Goswami, who’d spent his youth and education as a priest in Sri Rangam, a temple town in southern India, he collected verses from some two hundred scriptures, including twenty-five selections from Pancharatra sources. From this effort was born the manual Hari-Bhakti-Vilasa.

Srila Rupa Goswami also gives credit to the Pancharatra as being one of the legitimate sources of conclusive evidence on the nature of Godhead and the methods of developing our relationship with God. Again, Srila Prabhupada writes:

Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī has said in the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (1.2.101):


śruti-smṛti-purāṇādi-pañcarātra-vidhiṁ vinā
aikāntikī harer bhaktir utpātāyaiva kalpate


He clearly mentions in this verse that one must refer to the Vedic literatures and other, supplementary literatures and follow the conclusion of the Vedas. An invented devotional attitude simply creates disturbances in the transcendental realm.

Since the Pancharatra scriptures give directions for the worship of the Lord, particularly in deity worship, and since many of the ancient mantras have been included in the Hari Bhakti Vilasa, they can still be found being chanted today by all members of the Vaishnava sampradayas, including the members of ISKCON.

 

 

 

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When Almighty God rides his chariot

Three chariots waiting in Udupi, Karnataka, southern India

Annual parade in Parthasarathi temple, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

Triple chariots in Puri, Orissa, India

The chariot ride of the temple Deity is a special event in the annual cycle of Vaishnava festivals. Many temples in India have a large corrugated iron hangar somewhere close by. Inside, a large hand-carved wooden chariot stands waiting for the day when the Deity leaves His temple and is taken for a colourful, musical parade.

Sometimes clad in decorated silver or gold, festooned with flags and drapes of coloured silk, flower chains, jingling bells  and white yak-tail fans, the chariot is slowly brought out from the hangar and established in the town square, just before the main temple gate. Hundreds of eager Vaishnavas wait patiently. Decorated elephants shift their weight from foot to foot. Then, when all is ready the Deity is invited to come out from his temple to take part in a pleasure ride with his devotees.

Bestowing his merciful glance on devotees and public alike, the Lord and his Goddess move gracefully along the street. This brief journey, only an hour or two, gives everyone a chance to reflect on their own walk with God and how that spiritual journey is progressing. Brightly coloured designs are chalked out along the route, flower petals thrown at intervals; songs are sung by groups assembled at crossroads, drums thunder, and fireworks bang and crack.

The Lord and the Goddess return slowly to their home within the sanctum sanctorum, soft lullabies are chanted, a lone flute is played, and the procession is complete.

This year, the chariot festival in London falls on Sunday, 17th of June. Dear readers in Britain, and even those in other countries, please come if you can to this beautiful event; pull the ropes and bring Lord Krishna into your hearts.

 

 

 

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‘Streams of sacred delight pour into the heart…’

 

Last night I was with one of our forty local groups here in London. This particular sanga, as we call our groups, was at a suburban home in the shadow of the massive arch of the new Wembley Stadium, which dominates the skyline around here. The group members were preparing for a ‘Japa Marathon’ – an event they hold every time an ekadasi coincides with a Sunday.

The idea is very simple. Sunday is the day off in Britain, ekadasi is the day for extra rounds of maha-mantra japa. So when ekadasi falls on a Sunday it’s a perfect day for committing oneself to extra chanting of the holy names. And doing it together with friends – and prasadam on tap – makes it a more enjoyable occasion.

I was handed a sheet of paper on which had been written the results from the last such event. Around twenty members had taken part, and the numbers were impressive. The youngest members had chanted one, two or three rounds, their first attempts; then many others had completed 20, 32, 40 and at least one had finished up at 64 – a full eight hours of chanting.

I commended all the members for their determined efforts, and wished them well for the following day. By committing themselves to a certain degree of numerical strength, they are more likely to experience something which will cause them to develop their faith in the process of chanting itself.

Japa, the sacred recitation of the names of God, is not the ‘vain repetition’ that Jesus warned of. It is not a dry, mechanical exercise. Rather, it is the constant prayer to God to allow us to become restored to divine service. When commenting on Saint Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, the great Christian preacher CH Spurgeon said that when a person ‘prays without ceasing’ then ‘streams of sacred delight pour into the heart.’ Furthermore, when such prayer and delight combine, ‘their first child is gratitude’. And that child of gratitude gives rise to more prayer.

Years ago I read the account of the Russian pilgrim who goes in search of a teacher who will explain to him the way of ceaseless prayer. He meets his guru, or the Russian equivalent, the starets, who ushers him into the world of the hesychast, the contemplative who restrains the senses, turns inwards, recites his prayer, mantra-like, and opens himself up to the grace of God. While the Church may have largely abandoned such seemingly ritualistic practises, they are, of course, very much present in the traditions of the East.

The great mediaeval Vaishnava saint, Rupa Goswami, would say that during his own chanting, he would have the overpowering desire to have thousands of tongues and thousands of ears, so that he could fill his mind with the sweet reverberation of the names of God. The tradition he created was brought west by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who made it the basis of his spiritual teaching.

It is a good principle when chanting – or praying without ceasing – to fix one’s mind on a numeric goal. This is known as making a sankalpa, or a willed determination. The act of determination generates sufficient resolve to reach the goal. Counting prayer, on the joints of one’s fingers, on knots of rope or a string of beads, may seem to be counter-intuitive. It would seem that meditation or prayer is about the intensity of absorption or strength of devotional feeling, not the methodical counting of repetitions. And yet fixing the restless mind on a chosen number of recitations determines the period of time spent in such absorption, minimises the tendency for distraction, and sets an expectation of regular or occasional commitment.

And when the recitation – the prayer without ceasing – is composed of the names of God, then the chanter lives in the presence of God at each moment.

 

 

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Flowers and altars

I conducted a griha-pravesh ceremony yesterday, the ritual of entering a new home, and the householders very kindly presented me with a good quantity of fresh, sweet smelling jasmine flowers and a large pink lotus bud, just about to bloom. I was happy to have some exotic flowers to use in my daily puja, and I combined the ivory-coloured jasmine this morning with some bright orange calendula.

Srila Prabhupada was right when he quoted an old Indian maxim that: “You can buy anything in London – even tiger’s blood.” The idea behind the expression was that tiger’s blood was a commodity obviously difficult to acquire – yet even the most difficult things could be acquired in the British capital city. With many temples here in London, and thousands of worshipers who frequent them, the market for traditional flowers for offerings to the Deities has increased in the last few years.

Another increase for the worship of our Lord Krishna here in London just a couple of weeks ago was the offering of a new altar in our central London temple in the West End. After thirty years of one altar, and a slightly cramped configuration for the priests, the new double altar looks very attractive and is easier with a more traditional layout. You can see it here.

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English Puja Flowers

One of the items for worshipping Lord Krishna is flowers. By offering flowers at the time of puja (pooja) the Lord becomes pleased with the devotee, and the devotee becomes happy at seeing the Lord’s form decorated. Although at this time of year in England flowers can be thin on the ground, and although it is true that I am no gardener, still there seems to be just enough to offer some kind of flowers each day.

Looking back through the entire year I can only be satisfied at the plentiful gifts that nature has provided. From Spring right through Summer to late Autumn there’s a variety of flowers in England in a wide range of colours and shapes.

For my own personal puja I use flowers for four different purposes. The first is petals for offering to the divine feet (esha pushpanjali); second is flat or trumpet-shaped flowers for sitting places (idam asanam); third is smaller flowers for decoration (idam alankaram); and fourth is flowers for offering as part of the arati ceremony (idam pushpam).

When I was in India I would buy pink lotus and small, white jasmine flowers: beatiful form and stunning fragrance. Here in England the flowers are of different forms and fragrances but beautiful nonetheless. Lord Krishna accepts them with delight as long as we offer them with love (Bhagavad gita 9.26)  Here are just some of my English puja flowers:

Potentilla. Very abundant and long-flowering. Good alankara or decoration.

Buddleia, named after Reverend Buddle. Short flowering but very fragrant

The all-charitable, ever-abundant Marigold

Petunia, very good for asanas or sitting places

Fuschias or ‘Lady’s Ear Drops.’

Orange Ball Buddleia. Extremely short flowering period but great while it lasts!

Valerian. She reminds me of my childhood in Cornwall. Please don’t call her a weed.

Cherry Blossom. Along with the crocus and daffodil, the first flower to come after the cold weather.

Busy Lizzy. Colourful and abundant, easy to grow.

Winter Hebe growing right now. A splash of colour in the cold months

Snap Dragons. No English garden should be without them

Lobelia: Vey small, delicate flowers for decorating Krishna

Srila Prabhupada’s favourite, and so very fragrant. English, too!

In the depths of winter, these Snowberries can still be offered to Krishna.

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Diksha and Drugs: An Unfortunate Combination

Some years ago, when I heard the story of three young men celebrating their Vaishnava diksha with a round of cold Guinness, I thought it was the beginning of an Irish joke. Unfortunately it was true. The guru who’d given them their initiation had omitted to tell them anything at all about the practical disciplines of spiritual life and so they’d assumed that their old life could continue as normal.

Over the years many similar stories have reached me, all concerning the absence of customary instruction on the life of a Vaishnava, especially the parts about giving up intoxication.  There are many tales now of aspiring Vaishnavas, perhaps visiting India for the first time, being misled by a spiritual preceptor who allows them to continue with their drinking or smoking in the name of being ‘merciful’. But the combination of initiation and intoxication only produces confusion and, in the long term, sadness and depression.

And it doesn’t stop at a celebratory Guinness. Mother Nature produces a wide variety of substances that can be ingested by being licked, chewed, drunk, and sucked. Although she provides them for medicinal or other purposes, when misapplied or taken to excess they can result in powerful intoxication, inebriation, and hallucinogenic experiences. And when men take those gifts of nature and decide to refine, ferment, distil, then drink, smoke or inject the products, the result can be total addiction and complete destruction.

Its nothing new, of course. Alcohol has been a destructive part of life since the days of the Vedic sages, and both the poppy and the ganja plant have always grown wild in India. All these, and many more, have been used by certain classes of men since time immemorial. And since time immemorial they have been condemned by wise teachers who wanted to help them towards a greater, longer lasting happiness.

So when a candidate comes for initiation into spiritual life, they are expected to have already made a commitment to refrain from taking intoxicating substances. And the guru is expected to help them make that commitment and to then to uphold it through his good instruction.

The fact that some spiritual preceptors are not doing that is, sadly, nothing new. There have always been forgetful or neglectful gurus who omitted important teachings and inadvertently led their disciples astray; and there have been others that deliberately left out teachings on discipline in order to gather a popular following. But that disciplic descendants in the line of Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakur are now doing so is troubling. Both of those great acaryas, and then, in their line, Srila A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, strenuously taught about the dangers of intoxication and campaigned against the foolish combination of diksha and drugs.

So I was perturbed when, last year, I saw a young man with neckbeads and forehead tilak markings walking through the street of an English town with a half-finished can of cider. When I stoped him to ask his name it was obvious that he’d been drinking for some time. I was equally troubled when I saw another devotee smoking. But I was very saddened when another young man, newly initiated, recently collapsed of a drug overdose in one of our preaching centres.

Then, just two weeks ago, I was told the tragic story of a married man with a wife and child. He was initiated and looking forward to his upcoming trip to India when he would receive his gayatri diksha. Unfortunately, being insufficiently guided by his ‘most merciful’ preceptor, he’d continued his fascination with his drug of choice. But his favourite substance was an hallucinogenic, used by Amazonian shamans for visionary experiences. At a party he consumed too much, was taken to hospital, but later died.

Srila Prabhupada instituted the recitation of the ‘four regulative principles’ at every initiation ceremony. Before he gave a disciple their new Vaishnava name, he would ask them to declare vocally in public that from that moment forward they would consume no intoxicating substance, not even tea and coffee. His disciples followed his example and the declaration of the four principles is now a standard component of every such ceremony.

Yet apparently this is not done by others, even by those who praise Srila Prabhupada and everything he did, even to the point of declaring themselves to be ‘his siksha disciple.’ Why this should be, we don’t know. But it may – albeit inadvertently – give those who are coming so fresh to Vaishnava life the mistaken impression that one can chant the Hare Krishna mantra and simultaneously engage in consumption of intoxicants. Such an idea runs counter to everything taught by the previous acaryas; runs against the current of advice given the holy Srimad Bhagavatam; and is patently not producing the desired results.

If we are to prevent western Vaishnavism descending into a sahajiya culture – a culture so strenuously fought against by our previous acaryas – then initiations such as these must discontinue. Good advice is required, adequate preparation is needed, and certain dangers must be pointed out.

The river of Mercy must again flow within the riverbanks of Dharma.

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Ancient Vaishnava Ritual in Rural England

While visiting the megalithic countryside around Stonehenge, myself and a friend first stopped in at Woodhenge. It was built on the same principle as Stonehenge but out of wood, now all decayed, but marked by modern concrete posts.

Again there was the feature of the north-east direction being left open for some purpose, either access or ceremonial. Traditionally, the north-east is the space in one’s home where the altar is placed. Any home constructed according to principles of Vastu Veda will have this space in the house free for a sacred purpose.

My friend and I had a lively discussion on the science of directions, sacred spaces, and Vedic ceremonial. The sun was shining down on us, we were getting hotter, and we noticed it was high time for our midday chanting of the Gayatri mantras. These are Sanskrit mantras chanted three times daily: at sunrise, noon, and sunset. These three times of day, when night becomes day; when morning becomes afternoon; and when day becomes night are known as sandhya. Because the Gayatri mantras are prayers they are known as vandanam. The word ‘three’ in Sanskrit is tri. Hence the thrice daily ritual performed by all brahmanas is known as tri-sandhya-vandanam.

The sandhya-vandanam is performed by first bathing, then sipping water, then mumuring the prayers while touching a sacred thread. This thread is given by the guru at the time of diksha or initiation and is worn from then on, draped from the left shoulder diagonally across the chest to the waist.

As I was leaving the temple that morning, by some curious but fortuitous coincidence, another friend who was off to India had left a set of sacred threads and some kusha grass, used as a permanently pure sitting mat.

Periodically, the sacred thread must be changed as it gets old or thin, and mine was due for such a change.

So with all these factors coming together, and being in a landscape where mankind has been performing rituals involving the sun for thousands of years, we both thought it would be a good idea to change threads and chant sandhya-vandanam in a traditional Vaishnava way and change threads at the same time.

And what better place to do it than on the bank of a river? As the Avon River was very close by we decided to find a good spot and take the plunge – quite literally!

The Avon is a great English river – but even on a hot day its very cold at first!

This kurcha ring, made of kusha grass, keeps the hand pure.

This silver gindhi is used for pouring the waters of the Avon into the palm, after asking the Ganges to also be present.

Chanting the Gayatri mantras at noon on a riverbank. Very purifying, and such a very English thing to do.

All pictures courtesy of Amaraprabhu Das. Lots more photos of ceremonies and India tours here

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