The Dynamics of Environment: A Factor for Assuring Success

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Spiritual teachers in the Vedic tradition have often shown great care in selecting the site of their endeavors.

I recently visited Sringeri, situated on the Tunga River amid picturesque mountains in the South Indian state of Karnataka. Adi Sankaracharya, the eighth-century philosopher who propagated Advaita Vedanta and unified India culturally and religiously, chose the idyllic setting of Sringeri as the spot for his first matha (monastery). While I was there, far from the conveniences of life in a modern city, I wondered what made Sankaracharya choose this place? My curiosity led me to the secret, revealed by some of his followers as well as the spiritual mentors with whom I was traveling.

Tradition has it that Sankaracharya was on the lookout for a convenient holy place where he could establish an institution to spread his philosophy. When he came to Sringeri, he saw a cobra on the bank of the river Tunga spreading its hood over a suffering frog, shading it from the scorching midday sun. Struck by the uncommon sight of a predator safeguarding its prey, Sri Sankaracharya was convinced that Sringeri, where divine love ensured mutual coexistence between natural adversaries, was the right place to establish the first of his four monasteries. His subsequent accomplishments are witnessed by history, hundreds of books, and thousands of disciples. From Sankaracharya's example we can learn an important lesson: Wisely choose an environment favorable for your activity.

Environment is an invisible hand that shapes human behavior. We tend to believe our habits are a product of our motivation, talent, and effort. Certainly these qualities matter, but surprisingly, our personal characteristics tend to get overpowered by our environment, especially over a long period. Imagine trying to grow tomatoes outside in a Canadian winter. You could be the most talented farmer in the world, but it won’t make a difference. Snow is a very poor substitute for soil.

If you want to maximize your odds of success, then you need to operate in an environment that accelerates your results rather than hinders them. Even a small change in environment can matter greatly. For example, a study by Brian Wansink at Cornell University found that people eat twenty-two percent less food by switching from twelve-inch dinner plates to ten-inch plates.

Life is a game, and if you want to guarantee better results over a sustained period, the best approach is to play the game in an environment that favors you. Choosing a conducive environment for your activities, whether yoga, study, meditation, writing, cooking, or playing, can assure success. This is evident in the Bhagavad-gita (6.11–12), where Lord Krishna advises those who want to progress in ashtanga-yoga to choose a proper place and seat for practice.

shucau deshe pratishthapya
sthiram asanam atmanah
naty-uchchritam nati-nicham
chailajina-kushottaram

tatraikagram manah kritva
yata-chittendriya-kriyah
upavishyasane yunjyad
yogam atma-vishuddhaye

“To practice yoga, one should go to a secluded place and should lay kusha grass on the ground and then cover it with a deerskin and a soft cloth. The seat should be neither too high nor too low and should be situated in a sacred place. The yogi should then sit on it very firmly and practice yoga to purify the heart by controlling his mind, senses, and activities and fixing the mind on one point.”

Historical Examples

We often find in the Vedic scriptures that a particular place or environment is chosen for greater effect.

Kurukshetra was selected for the Mahabharata war because it was a holy place. Srila Prabhupada writes,

The word dharma-kshetra (a place where religious rituals are performed) is significant because, on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra, the Supreme Personality of Godhead was present on the side of Arjuna. Dhritarashtra, the father of the Kurus, was highly doubtful about the possibility of his sons' ultimate victory. In his doubt, he inquired from his secretary Sanjaya, "What did they do?" He was confident that both his sons and the sons of his younger brother Pandu were assembled in that Field of Kurukshetra for a determined engagement of the war. Still, his inquiry is significant. He did not want a compromise between the cousins and brothers, and he wanted to be sure of the fate of his sons on the battlefield. Because the battle was arranged to be fought at Kurukshetra, which is mentioned elsewhere in the Vedas as a place of worship – even for the denizens of heaven – Dhritarashtra became very fearful about the influence of the holy place on the outcome of the battle. He knew very well that this would influence Arjuna and the sons of Pandu favorably, because by nature they were all virtuous. (Gita 1.1, Purport)

Explaining the importance of Naimisharanya, the forest where Sri Suta Goswami spoke the Bhagavatam to an assembly of sages, Srila Prabhupada writes,

In the Vayaviya Tantra, it is said that Brahma, the engineer of this particular universe, contemplated a great wheel which could enclose the universe. The hub of this great circle was fixed at a particular place known as Naimisharanya. Similarly, there is another reference to the forest of Naimisharanya in the Varaha Purana, where it is stated that by performance of sacrifice at this place, the strength of demoniac people is curtailed. Thus brahmanas prefer Naimisharanya for such sacrificial performances. (Bhagavatam 1.1.4, Purport)

In the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu Srila Rupa Goswami gives five potent items of devotional service: residing in Mathura, worshiping the deity of the Lord, reciting Srimad-Bhagavatam, associating with devotees, and chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. These are so potent that a small attachment for any one of them can arouse devotional ecstasy even in a neophyte. One of these items is residing in Mathura, and its importance is mentioned in various scriptures. For example, “In the Brahmanda Purana it is said that all the results of traveling on all the pilgrimages within the three worlds can be achieved simply by touching the holy land of Mathura.” (The Nectar of Devotion, chapter 12)

It is also evident from the scriptures that formerly not only devotees of the Lord but even demoniac people were aware of the importance of choosing a proper environment for success. For example, Hiranyakshipu chose Mandara Mountain to perform austerity, and Ravana performed austerity on Kailasa Mountain.

Of course, while the environment matters, what you do there is equally important. The Srimad-Bhagavatam describes the scandalous activities of Nalakuvara and Manigriva in a holy atmosphere.

Shukadeva Goswami said: “O King Parikshit, because the two sons of Kuvera had been elevated to the association of Lord Shiva, of which they were very much proud, they were allowed to wander in a garden attached to Kailasa Hill, on the bank of the Mandakini River. Taking advantage of this, they used to drink a kind of liquor called Varuni. Accompanied by women singing after them, they would wander in that garden of flowers, their eyes always rolling in intoxication. (Bhagavatam 10.10.2–3)

We also need to note that for a pure devotee of the Lord, environment doesn’t matter much.

narayana-parah sarve
na kutashcana bibhyati
svargapavarga-narakeshv
api tulyartha-darshinah

“Devotees solely engaged in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Narayana, never fear any condition of life. For them the heavenly planets, liberation and the hellish planets are all the same, for such devotees are interested only in the service of the Lord.” (Bhagavatam 6.17.28)

Srila Prabhupada, who was a "Vaikuntha Man" (a description he used for his own guru), carried his own spiritual environment with him; wherever he would go, his spiritual consciousness permeated the atmosphere and entered the hearts of others, often transforming them into devotees. Thousands of disciples from Western countries are evidence of this.

Vaikuntha Atmosphere

In the Bhagavad-gita (18.65) Lord Krishna, revealing the topmost secret, asks us to become His devotees:

man-mana bhava mad-bhakto
mad-yaji maḿ namaskuru
mam evaishyasi satyam te
pratijane priyo ’si me

“Always think of Me, become My devotee, worship Me, and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.” These four limbs of devotional service can best be practiced if we choose the right place. And what better place than a temple? Among Srila Prabhupada's many great contributions, his temples and devotional communities are very important because they facilitate the practice of devotional service for many spiritual aspirants. We can take advantage of them for our spiritual practices, such as chanting Hare Krishna, hearing the Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita, and associating with devotees. Srila Prabhupada said the temples were identical to Vaikuntha. Let each of us take full advantage of these Vaikuntha temples created for everyone by a "Vaikuntha man," transport our consciousness to Vaikuntha, and make our life perfect.

About the Author: 

Krishna Dhana Dasa

Krishna Dhana Dasa is the president of ISKCON Nasik, Maharashtra, India.