A painful misstep in a British Columbia barn inspires thoughts about a universal law.
By Yoginatha Dasa
For those who practice Krishna consciousness, even ordinary material objects like manure rakes are potential instruments for profound spiritual lessons.
I’m looking out my window at rounded mounds of snow piled against the tool shed. The winter British Columbia sky is gray, and pointy icicles are hanging from the edge of the roof. I’m warm and cozy inside our log cabin, and quite comfortable except for the swollen black eye I’m nursing. Let me tell you about the eye.
For several years it has been our family custom to perform a go-puja (cow-worshiping ceremony) at noon on January 1. For us it’s a way to express gratitude and invoke good fortune for the upcoming year. We think of the cow as the universal mother. Her dung makes our strawberries large and juicy, her urine relieves my friend’s high blood pressure, and her milk (taken after she feeds her calf) makes excitingly delicious yogurt. According to a number of Vedic scriptures, she is a medium for delivering spiritual benefits to humans. She is not God, but she is a beautiful and important part of God’s creation. We are happy to honor such a gentle and generous creature.
We have a small goshala (shelter for cows), with six cows. We try to be very attentive to their needs for good food and fresh water. We also provide them with a clean barn where they can lounge during the winter months. In addition to the regular daily care, on a few occasions we formally worship them. New Year’s Day is one such time.
Our friend Pravin, who grew up in Gujarat, taught us a system of cow worship. We bring Surabhi (our largest and friendliest cow) to the hitching post and tie her up. She is docile, but animals can be unpredictable. We don’t want her wandering off in the middle of a ceremony in which she is the chief object of veneration, so we fasten her to the post with her braided purple rope. We wash her four hooves (lotus feet) with rose water, we decorate her body with turmeric and vermilion, we offer her a new sari and a flower garland, and then we perform puja with incense, ghee lamp, and fan. After all of that, we feed her (and the other five cows) special cow treats. While all of this is going on, mantras are being chanted, especially the Hare Krishna mantra. At the end, all the participants circumambulate Surabhi and receive her blessings by having their heads brushed with the fluffy end of her tail.
The Treat-tray Tragedy
The air was cold on this particular New Year’s Day. The sky was clear blue, and the angled winter sun caused the snow to sparkle like millions of tiny red and green jewels. The atmosphere in the barnyard was magical. After collecting all of the articles for worship and placing them on a shiny yellow cloth that covered a bench near the hitching post, I returned down the driveway to our home to prepare the cow-treat tray.
The treat tray is large, more than two feet across. When full it looks like an oversized banquet tray prepared for an indulgent king. We take pride in this tray. We bring up the best of the organic carrots, beets, and apples from the root cellar. These are all grown in our private garden with the intention of having special food for the cows during the winter. The vegetables and apples are cut and sliced and artistically arranged on the tray. We also load the tray with the most preferred of all treats, ground flax seeds mixed with gur (raw date sugar) and formed into balls. The gur balls are piled in the center of the tray. They look like a mountain arising from a swirling sea of red, orange, and white.
I carried the treat-laden platter up the incline of a snowy hundred-foot driveway, my body shifting into a heavy-breathing gear. The tray had to be kept separate from the other items of worship – away from the cows for now – so I brought it into a separate section of the barn. As I stepped from the snowy driveway onto the cement floor of the barn, my foot slipped, I lost my balance, and I threw the tray into the air. Simultaneously I lunged forward, stepping onto the teeth of a rake and forcing its handle to fly straight into my face. This is a special heavy-duty barn rake I ordered online as a birthday present for myself so I could improve my service to the cows. The oversized handle, propelled by the full force of my body weight, flew from the ground to my face in a fraction of a second. The blow knocked my glasses to the ground and hit me square in my right eye.
I have always found it curious that even though I am well schooled in Vaishnava philosophy, in moments of relatively minor body trauma I spontaneously resort to expressing my feelings by way of the lowest mode of nature. As I tumbled and reeled in pain, I began cursing. The worst words I knew. Words I would never utter in public. Was I cursing God? Was I cursing my fate? And in what way could cursing help relieve the pain or remedy the situation? I cannot answer these questions. I can only say that I felt angry and humiliated and that the cursing came forth in a flurry.
After a few moments of sputtering around in a circle, I pulled my hand away from my eye. There was no blood. I could open the eyelid, but it hurt and my vision was blurry, so I kept it closed. With one eye I looked at the scattered pile of beets and carrots and apples and gur. The neighbors were coming for go-puja in just a few minutes.
I began to reassemble the treat tray. But this time, as an act of defiance, I threw everything together in a nondescript pile. Here I was, about to honor God’s own cow, and in return for my piety I was whacked in the face by a professional-grade road rake. I was not in the mood to recreate the swirling pattern of fruits and vegetables on the treat tray. I was feeling betrayed and resentful.
As the Fan Turns
I stoically completed the entire thirty minutes of worship, thanked the participants, cleaned up, and returned to the comfort of my ashram to sulk. I could understand that after many millions of lifetimes in the material world there may be some residual karma that a devotee must patiently endure. But after forty-plus years of relatively steady devotional practices, shouldn’t the “unplugged fan” of karma have slowed down? (See Endnote.) OK, somehow I may have deserved it. Who knows what sins I might have committed in past lives. But why a rake handle to the face? It was so undignified. And why did it happen mere moments before conducting a religious ceremony? Emotional reconciliation eluded me.
When I woke up the following day and looked in the mirror, I saw a glowing bright-red eyeball with a small circle of white remaining on one side. Was the tiny white moon in a sea of red some kind of smug cosmic joke intended to let me know it could have been worse? The eye could be entirely red. I wasn’t humored. The skin around the eye was black. Not green and blue like generic body bruises, but solid black. It looked like something from a Hollywood horror film, a combination zombie/vampire. When I showed the eye to my wife, her jaw slackened as she stared in silent disbelief. When my daughter looked at it, she gasped for air. “Oh my God, Dad, that’s SCARY!”
An Eye for an Eye
Later in the day my wife asked me to look at the calendar to find out the date of the next full moon. The calendar hangs at eye level on a kitchen wall. When I flicked the calendar page, something impossible happened. The corner of January slipped past my glasses and poked me with full force directly on the sole remaining white spot of my injured eye. The pain was sharp and penetrating. In fact, it hurt more than the previous day’s smack by the rake.
I was stunned and shocked, but my reaction was quite different than it had been on the day before. The sheer impossibility of the event inspired in me a sense of wonder. I had flipped thousands of calendar pages in my life, all without even a hint of incident. I had no reason to be cautious or to think it could be dangerous. How was it possible for a common calendar page to poke me like a pencil directly on the final remaining speck of white of my bright-red eye? Rather than feeling angry or resentful, I was so utterly amazed that the pain seemed incidental. It was as if the laws of physics had been momentarily suspended just for my tutelage.
The purpose of karma, the power and genius of karma, the precise and exact fairness of karma, and the gentle hand of karma were all revealed to me in that moment. It was simple and self-evident. A brilliant and loving God allows the material energy to reward us with the very least possible amount of appropriate discomfort in order to bring about the greatest possible amount of good. An hour in the dentist’s chair spares the child days of tooth pain in the future. It was for my benefit! I really did deserve it! I was getting free from the sins of the past!
I felt joyful to be chastened by the agents of a concerned and affectionate God. Yes please, take my whole eye if that is Your desire. It’s Your eye, and Your power of vision causes it to work in the first place. Take both eyes if You wish! I trust You.
The stream of such thoughts liberated me from any inclination to curse. Cursing in that moment was unthinkable. Quite the opposite, I was grateful if not elated to receive the pain.
The Vaishnava teleology of karma asserts certain truths. There is a God. We have free will. We are responsible for our choices. The cause and effect of our deeds extends beyond one life, and in the end God desires nothing more than our happiness. Although karma is an irresistible force in this mortal world, in Vaikuntha (the kingdom of God) the laws of karma do not operate. Vaikuntha is a realm of absolute freedom. Karma would serve no purpose there since the inhabitants, motivated by a profound love for God, have no need of moral correction. In time, bhakti-yoga virtually eliminates the karmic load of the serious practitioner, thus preparing him or her for transfer to Vaikuntha. A rake in the face is a small price to pay for receiving a glimpse into this eternal sacred reality.
Srila Prabhupada explained that although a person engaged in devotional service does not incur karmic reactions, a reduced version of previous activities continue to play out in some way, just as a fan keeps turning for a while after it has been unplugged.
I have used the word karma in the popular sense of the term – a divine justice system that delivers rewards and punishments corresponding directly to our actions. More accurately, karma refers not only to the results of our actions (karma phala) but also to the work or action itself. The two following verses from the Bhagavad-gita are favorites of mine, and both illustrate this broader understanding of the word.
“Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed; otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain free from bondage.” (3.9)
“The work of a man who is unattached to the modes of material nature and who is fully situated in transcendental knowledge merges entirely into transcendence.” (4.23)