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Krishna The Chariot Driver

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by Hayagriva

What are the purposes, the practices—and the fruits—of spiritual surrender?

1968-01-24-02Krishna the Chariot Driver holds the reins of His chariot, the Creation. He is no inexperienced charioteer. He is very adept at driving the universe through space. As the Absolute Controller, He is able to drive all chariots along even the roughest roads, and for the man who recognizes and accepts His mastery, He is the perfect Guide and Guru.

“Jagannath Swami!” Guru of the Universe! Shankara’s accolade is no extravagance. Full knowledge, as an attribute of the Divine, predicates everything from the proverbial blade of grass that doesn’t stir without His will, to colonies of ants in the deepest forests, to grains of sand shifting on the shores of all the worlds, to the grand panoramas of history—a colorful tableau in time—cosmic phenomena defying man’s imagination—such as the births and destructions of galaxies. All are being guided under the expert hand of this Charioteer, Who sweeps through everything.

Those who have read The Bhagavad Gita know that in that scripture Lord Sri Krishna appears as Chariot Driver to Arjuna, a warrior about to engage in the Battle of Kurukshetra. Krishna’s role here is neither coincidental nor subsidiary—rather, as the Driver, He is in control. Riding in the chariot, Arjuna is the prototype of the ideal man. Sickened by the prospect of fighting against his kinsmen, Ariuna from the very beginning bows to Krishna, requesting that He guide him through his difficulties.

“Now I am confused about duty, and have lost all composure because of weakness,” Arjuna tells Krishna. “In this condition I am asking You to tell me clearly what is best for me. Now I am Your disciple, and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me.” This attitude of surrender enables Krishna to drive Arjuna to victory.

Not only in the Gita, but in all Vedic literature we learn that “Iswara,” the Supreme Lord, is the Ultimate Controller. The Creation is His chariot which He drives in whatever way He likes. Aware or unaware, every living entity is controlled by Krishna: “The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of material energy.” (BG 18.61)

All entities are, in fact, being driven by the Supreme Lord on a chariot ride through eternity. Whether or not the entities enjoy this ride depends on their knowledge and acceptance of, faith in, and love for, the Driver.

For instance, the surrendered soul recognizes that Krishna is the Driver, the Ultimate Controller, and therefore he dovetails his will to Krishna’s will, and allows Krishna to drive him with complete faith. The rebellious soul, on the other hand, tries to take the reins from Krishna and drive according to his own whims—and as a result he gets lost or cracks up. “One who becomes conscious of Me passes over all the obstacles of conditional life. If, however, one does not work in such consciousness, and acts through false ego, not hearing Me, he is lost.” (BG 18.58) In this way, Krishna advises not only Arjuna, but all men.

Krishna, as the Supreme Enjoyer, the Supersoul, is the male or dominant principle—the Driver. The Creation, as “Prakriti” or Nature, is the female or receptive principle—the driven. These principles can be found functioning in the relationship between the devotee and the Lord. In the poems of Saint John of the Cross, for example, we find the Christ in the role of the bridegroom and the devotee as bride. And, of course, this relationship is found in innumerable other Christian poems. Most noted perhaps are John Donne’s “Batter My Heart Three-Person’d God” (…for I/Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”); the poems of George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Edward Taylor, Blake and Gerard Manly Hopkins.

This concept also holds true, of course, in the devotional poetry directed at Krishna, in the poems of Vidyapati, Jayadeva and Chandidas, where the devotee’s role is that of the beloved, the receptive, and the Lord is the Divine Lover, the Supreme Energetic. This principle can be found functioning not only in the religious and poetic spheres, but in all relationships in the material universe (from the physicist’s positive-negative electrons to the cosmos-void theories and yin-yang opposites) as a reflection of this spiritual reality. Ultimately the spiritual principle is epitomized in the worshipable forms of Radha and Krishna, as the Enjoyed and the Enjoyer.

Some of the great devotees of Krishna have assumed quite naturally their constitutional role as the enjoyed. Lord Chaitanya actually worshiped Krishna in separation and assumed the role of Radha in weeping for His separated Lover. Even the sight of a peacock or the sound of a flute would send Him into a swoon. This is considered the highest form of devotion. It is certainly the most intense, for it employs an explosive segment of the human condition—the sexual.

Strong sexual passions are often considered impediments to spiritual life—and in most Yogas they are—but in Bhakti Yoga these may be easily transformed, because lust for material sex gratification may be properly channeled into love for Krishna. After all, it is pleasure that everyone is seeking, and Krishna, as the Reservoir of all pleasure, can satisfy in all capacities. The process involves directing the libidinous drive from Maya, the temporary, to Reality. Once Maya is seen as the imperfect reflection of the Absolute Beauty—or beauty clogged and tainted by mortality and temporality—then the path is cleared. Absolute Beauty by definition is all-attractive, an attribute of Krishna.

The image of the chariot and the chariot driver is a dynamic one, as opposed to the static Vedantic philosophy of “oneness with Brahman.” The chariot presupposes movement, progress from one state of being to another state of being. In his fallen state, subjected to the material miseries of life, eternal “oneness with Brahman” remains for man only an idealistic philosophical supposition that is very much divorced from personal experience. But the chariot ride from mundane material consciousness to cosmic spiritual consciousness spurs the imagination and is, coincidentally, more in line with current theories of evolution. The chariot ride with Krishna as the Driver is not a wistful speculation but an exciting promise. Krishna, eternally blissful, is not static or stationary, but dynamic and energetic, and He drives His Creation at a rapid pace. He is, indeed, having fun.

There are, of course, those people who maintain that Nature has no driver, no director, and that the universe indeed is a runaway chariot bumbling along a path of creation and destruction. From generation to generation these theories of universal anarchy have arisen. They have gone under various names, and were even current five thousand years ago when Krishna instructed the Gita to Arjuna.

During Krishna’s time, philosophers who expounded these theories were known as the “Lokayitik” and “Baibhasikas.” They maintained that life symptoms take place at a certain mature condition of the material combinations. The modern material scientists and materialist philosophers think similarly. According to them, the body is a combination of physical elements, and at a certain stage the life symptoms develop by the interaction of physical and chemical combinations. How is this so? Oh, it just happens that way, these scientists and philosophers will answer. Which means they don’t know. Rebellious by nature, they hate and fear notions of an Absolute in any sphere. Nature, the universe, the Creation has no boss, they claim. We’re free! Anything goes! Although under the grip of material Nature, they claim they are free, and that the chariot has no driver.

Currently, many pseudo-religions, manufactured by drug-taking messiahs, have become fashionable in America, and they adhere to this philosophy. It is not surprising that they often find themselves sharing much common ground with certain nihilistic non-devotional Buddhist sects (such as Zen) that also deny an Ultimate Controller. Of course, their assertions are directly opposed to Lord Krishna’s instructions in the Gita:

O son of Kunti, at the end of the millennium every material manifestation enters unto My nature, and at the beginning of another millennium, by My potency I again create. The whole cosmic order is under Me. By My Will is it manifested again and again, and by My Will is it annihilated at the end. This material Nature is working under My direction, O son of Kunti, producing all the moving and unmoving beings; and by its rule this manifestation is created and annihilated again and again. (Gita, 9.7, 8, 10)

And what does Krishna say of those who think the chariot is driver-less and that life simply “happens” by the lucky interaction of certain physical and chemical combinations?

The foolish mock at Me, at My descending like a human being. They do not know My transcendental Nature, and My Supreme domination over all that be. Those who are thus bewildered are attracted by demonic and atheistic views. In that deluded condition, their hopes for liberation, their fruitive activities, and their culture of knowledge are all defeated. O son of Pritha, those who are not deluded, the Great Souls, are under the protection of the Divine Nature. They are fully engaged in devotional service because they know Me as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, original and inexhaustible. (Gita, 9.11-13)

The Absolute is at the very core of life. He is the Driver who determines, from moment to moment, what will come within the purview of our senses. And it is He Who holds our life, our happiness, our immortality in hand, as He holds the chariot’s reins. When we see Krishna in control of our very thoughts, then revelation is at hand. We may prepare to be touched by Him.

All suffering is caused by opposition to Him. The rebellious mentality current today simply generates human suffering, because it at once rejects all notions of an Absolute in the universe. Why? As one young student told me: “I’ve had no experience with anything Absolute. I don’t even know what you mean when you say Absolute.”

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t an Absolute,” I replied.

“As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t an Absolute,” he said.

“But that doesn’t matter. Being Absolute, the Absolute doesn’t require your belief or disbelief. But why do you reject what you don’t experience? Every day, aware or unaware, you accept a great deal that you don’t experience. You are forced to accept a great deal on faith. Until you recognize your relationship with the Absolute, why not accept Him on faith too?”

“But I can’t accept the Absolute like that,” the student assured me. “If there is an Absolute, He would make Himself known.”

“Maybe He is,” I said. “And maybe you’re trying to shut Him out.”

“But if He’s Absolute, then I can’t shut Him out.”

“True,” I said. “So why not open up to Him?”

“You’re juggling words,” He said. “Words don’t mean anything.”

“The glory of God is beyond words,” I said, “but words can direct you to that glory. Besides, words have a glory all their own. The Gita, the Bible, the Buddhist Sutras—are all truly glorious, and who can deny their meaning? And in describing the Absolute, the Absolute is glorified by words. Being Absolute, He is one with words, and so St. John begins his gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.'”

“Just words,” he said finally.

“Yes,” I said. “And man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”

“More words,” he said. “Everything’s a word.”

“That’s right,” I said. “And you’re a word too. One of the best of words.” And to completely befuddle him I quoted Whitman: “Were you thinking that those were the words, those delicious sounds out of your friends’ mouths? No, the real words are more delicious than they. Human bodies are words, myriads of words. Air, soil, water, fire—those are words, and I myself am a word with them.”

I might have tried to tell my friend more, but at this point he was openly antagonistic to all words, and finally took recourse in an angry silence. I remember at the time he was going to school in Boston and he had come to New York to enjoy the psychedelic scene and take some LSD. He was open to chemicals, it seemed, but not to words. At least not my words. Subsequently, I have prayed that he has not become an inarticulate psychedelic vegetable. And I have thanked Krishna for His mercy upon Me.

Mercy. Another word. A word that sounds beautiful to me, at least. The Eternal Charioteer, spurring the chariot along complex and mysterious paths, is the dispenser of all mercies. In the Srimad Bhagwatam (11.5.29) it is said, “Your glory, O Lord, is revealed in the world. And yet he alone to whom You grant mercy from Your Lotus Feet may feel a little of it. And to none else will You reveal Yourself, though he might seek You forever.”

To obtain this mercy we can surrender to Krishna and ask Him to be our Charioteer. Surrender must be in love and faith. Krishna told the Gopies, “People obtain liberation from the world only through loving faith in Me. So the love you bear for Me is a great joy to you, for it is through this love alone that I shall be attained.” (Srimad Bhagwatam, 10.82.31). To taste the pleasure of the Absolute, we must be as the Gopies, we must lay our souls open to Him so He can drive through. He is within, and He will dictate to whomever turns to Him with a sincere heart, for He is within the hearts of all. Once we offer our bodies as chariots, then the Charioteer will drive from the heart and lead us to His abode.

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