By Ravikant Jagtap
He could not see the Lord, but the Lord, seeing him, drew him close after his long search for truth.
Right from my childhood I had serious health problems. At five I had severe ear pain and asthma. At thirteen I developed a brain tumor that took me to several hospitals. Some friendly Christians approached me during that time and suggested I come to church and attend their prayer sessions. Their love and care moved my heart, and their prayers and concern for my health comforted me and uplifted my spirits. But after some time, they started blaspheming various devas of our Vedic tradition. They criticized the Vedic scriptures and the devotional practices described in them. I soon realized that all their pleasing talks were a covert attempt to convert me to their faith. I gave up all connections with them.
While in school I enrolled in a reiki course in Mumbai, and much to my astonishment the twelve-year-old daughter of my instructor diagnosed my illness and pointed out the exact location of the tumor inside my brain – without any prior knowledge of my ailments. This experience gave me a profound realization: there are higher powers beyond our sense perception. Our physical senses are limited and incapable of providing us complete knowledge of our self and the universe around us.
Several questions started brewing up in my mind, and my quest for spirituality began. I delved into various spiritual, quasi-spiritual, and metaphysical practices. One spiritual leader in a small town in Maharashtra really inspired me – his talks ignited my curiosity to know more about the existence of God. My whole family got attracted to him, and within six months we all took initiation from him. I also got involved in the weekly programs of an organization where I got lots of love and my first exposure to the Bhagavad-gita. I would also regularly hear the talks of a prominent woman guru who convinced me that the Vedic literatures were not mere books of mythology, as falsely taught in modern history textbooks, but describe historical facts of bygone ages, millions of years ago. Her kirtanas and philosophical presentations impressed me.
Darkness in My Life
In 2001 calamity struck again and darkness loomed into my life – literally. While studying for my HSC board exams (standardized exams for class 12 students), I realized that I could not read my textbooks properly. Within ten days I lost my eyesight completely – both my eyes were shut and my eyeballs would not move. I then lost the ability to speak, eat, or drink, and developed unbearable headaches. Any liquid I would take would come out through my nose.
After two unsuccessful biopsies, the doctors wanted to open up my skull and check for a tumor. But my father protested: “I will let my child die in peace instead of becoming an object of doctors’ experiments.” We felt disappointed and hopeless.
I had heard the saying “When God shuts one door, He opens another.” And in 2002 a door of hope opened when a specialist doctor suggested I take Panchagavya Chikitsa treatment, based on cow urine and other cow products. By practicing yoga and Ayurvedic processes of body purification along with this new treatment, I experienced some miraculous results: within two or three months I started speaking a few short words and eating a little food. My headaches subsided, my eyes opened, and my eyeballs started moving. Most of the disease was cured within two years, although I did not regain my eyesight.
Continuing the Search for Truth
My health almost regained, I resumed my spiritual quest. One famous spiritual leader from North India explained Brahman by saying that God is ultimately impersonal. I heard him carefully, but I wasn’t satisfied at heart with his explanation. Another leader, from Mumbai, talked about the imminent Third World War and how only his followers were going to be saved. When he declared that he ate meat and smoked cigarettes, people applauded. Disgusted, I left the place, never to return.
I visited several other yogis and teachers. One taught how to invoke the kundalini and the various chakras within the body. A yogi in Maharashtra was able to miraculously solve the problems of his followers, and thus the followers considered him God. A yogi in South India produced gold chains out of ash. Millions thronged to see him and hear from him. I was not impressed by their abilities, because I felt that attaining them is not the goal of life. Self-realization is the ultimate goal, and one needs to be careful not to get distracted by various mystic powers one may achieve while practicing spiritual disciplines. I appreciated his social service but could not accept his philosophy.
Questions in my mind continued to haunt me. I met a group of yogis and yoginis who predicted that Kali-yuga, the current age, would end soon and that their brand of yoga was the only saving grace for humanity. They blasphemed the Vedic scriptures, alleging they were man-made. They claimed that the knowledge they give comes directly from God. I used to ask them many questions, but I rarely got a reasonable or satisfying answer. As with others, I left disgusted.
Another leader sounded logical and rational in his discourses, but he condemned the worship of God in temples as bogus. I felt hurt when he rejected as superstitious the worship of Lord Vi††hala, the famous Vishnu deity in Pandharpur, Maharashtra. I was particularly dissatisfied with his dismissal of the experiences of renowned saints with Lord Vi††hala as mere illusions, and traditional religious observances such as Ekadashi and pilgrimage to Pandharpur as superstitions. I recalled my visits to Pandharpur some years back, and how my heart had been drawn to the simplicity of the pilgrims and their unalloyed devotion to Vi††hala. The sweet singing of the abhaõgas (devotional poems) of Tukarama, the famous sixteenth-century devotee of Lord Vi††hala, had invoked a deep sense of devotion in me. Upon hearing his blasphemy of this age-old tradition, I rejected this pseudo religious leader outright.
Although my encounters with most religious leaders and yogis were disappointing and frustrating, some teachers inspired me and kept alive my hopes of meeting a genuine saint. One, whose simple teachings and clear focus impressed me, taught me to remain detached from pleasant and unpleasant sensations triggered by the mind, to witness all events with neutrality, and to remain equipoised in success and failure, happiness and distress. He emphasized avoiding sinful activities, increasing piety, and purifying one’s mind.
My physical disability allowed me to meet several prominent spiritual leaders. I felt humble and grateful, but still my heart hankered for something more.
An Introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is
As the potpourri of my spiritual experiences was cooking, my friend Sharad became a member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). We would have soulful discussions on spiritual topics for hours together. Our discussions would eventually end in argument about God’s nature and form – does He have a form, or is He formless and impersonal? Most of the time I prevailed, until one day my friend stunned me by showing me a verse from the Bhagavad-gita (7.24): “Unintelligent men, who do not know Me perfectly, think that I, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, was impersonal before and have now assumed this personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is imperishable and supreme.” All these years I had learned that God is impersonal and takes a personal form for His devotee.
How can He have a form and be present everywhere at the same time? I thought. God is unlimited, and having a form would limit Him.
I decided to check other translations of the same verse, and I saw that all other writers gave the opposite translation – that God is ultimately impersonal – thus confirming my doubts that ISKCON is wrong.
But deep within I felt my friend was right. When I read Srila Prabhupada’s commentary on various Gita verses, my impersonal barriers started to crumble and I slowly began to realize that God is ultimately a person, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He can have a divine form and be unlimited and omnipresent simultaneously.
Although Srila Prabhupada’s writings convinced me of Krishna’s divinity and the philosophy of Krishna consciousness, the behavior of some devotees put me off, and I continued my search.
Although I met many other teachers, I couldn’t commit myself to any of their paths. Either the teachers were unimpressive or the philosophies were unconvincing, sometimes even bewildering. Feeling distraught, I eagerly looked for someone who could answer my questions.
I prayed to God: “I don’t know if You are a person or ultimately impersonal. Please guide me and show me the right path.”
I am sure the Lord heard my prayers and answered my call. No, I did not have a divine vision or a mystical experience. But I was confident that God was personally guiding me and making me meet His representatives.
I met a spiritual leader who was a staunch devotee of Lord Krishna and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. His lectures were logical and strictly based on the Vedic scriptures. Quoting from various scriptures, he soundly defeated all opposing arguments and established the Vedic conclusions thoroughly. He convinced me that bhakti, the path of love, is the topmost method of self-realization. In his presence I felt easily drawn to Lord Krishna and His pastimes. This was a beacon of hope for me.
But soon I encountered a problem that created serious doubts in me: He emphasized guru-bhakti, the need to surrender oneself to a guru, but he himself had never accepted a guru. His followers defended him by saying that no one was qualified enough to be his guru. But, I wondered, if Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya accepted a guru, why can’t this person? Then more discordant factors came up. He emphasized smaranam, or meditation on the Lord’s pastimes, but belittled the importance of kirtana, the chanting of the holy names, even though all scriptures recommend it for this age. He said that a real guru never shows his ecstasies, but his ecstasies were broadcast on television. He said that one should perform devotional practice in the mood of the gopis, but I felt that was too difficult for most of us, who have so much contamination in our heart. Around that time, I heard a recorded lecture by Srila Prabhupada that touched me. He mentioned that one should gradually elevate one’s consciousness by first serving the Lord in the mood of a surrendered servant. When one is sufficiently purified, devotion in higher relationships with Krishna automatically manifests.
When followers of the other spiritual leader proclaimed that he was nondifferent from Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, I ended my connection with him. I knew that nothing could be further from the truth.
I felt disheartened, unable to find proper shelter and guidance. I was attracted to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, so I thought I would try ISKCON again, although my experiences with the organization had been disappointing. Still, I had found no aberration in the philosophy of ISKCON. Srila Prabhupada, with his genius and vision, established a wonderful platform for practicing spirituality.
Especially conducive for spiritual growth were the temples, which were full of devotees with whom one could consult any time. I started visiting the Sri Sri Radha-Rasabihari temple at Juhu, Mumbai, and participated in the kirtanas.
I had a heart-transforming experience when a devotee approached me and asked, “Why do you come to the temple if you cannot see?”
I had no answer. So he provided the answer.
“You should say that I may not be able to see the Lord, but the Lord can see that I have come to see Him.”
His answer satisfied my heart to the core. I had never felt like this before. Until then, I did not really know the goal of my quest for spiritual truths. But his answer made me realize that the goal was to satisfy the Lord. And the realization came in a simple yet heart-touching way. I wiped tears from my face. The memory of this experience inspires and rejuvenates me even today.
After this incident I became more devoted to ISKCON and soon started chanting sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra. The Sikshash†aka prayers of Lord Chaitanya deeply moved me, especially the third verse, which emphasizes the need for humility to properly chant the holy names. Then I heard talks by His Holiness Radhanath Swami Maharaja where he repeatedly quoted this verse. Upon closely observing him, I felt he exemplified the verse’s message. His unpretentious, unassuming nature attracted me.
“A real sadhu,” I once heard him say, “is not one who takes a higher position to uplift fallen souls. A real sadhu takes a lower position than the most fallen soul and gently pushes him up.”
This statement changed my outlook toward life.
Getting a Positive Point of View
In July 2007 I started getting epileptic seizures, up to twenty a day. The physical and psychological pain agonized me and left me feeling gloomy and empty. Once, Gaura Gopala Dasa, lecturing at the Chowpatty temple in Mumbai, mentioned the importance of prayer. One striking point of the lecture was that if Krishna is giving us problems in life, that means He is trying to say, “My dear friend, this material world is not for you. Please return to Me quickly.” I was enlivened to hear this. The point was so pertinent. What happened next is deeply etched into my heart, and I pray it stays for the rest of my life.
Gaura Gopala Dasa started leading the kirtana. There were hundreds of young men in the temple, all swaying rhythmically. The intensity of the frustration of my physical and mental pains piqued my emotions, and I burst out crying and praying.
Some devotees took me to the center of the temple hall and said, “Come on, friend. Please don’t waste your tears. Dance with us.”
They graciously taught me the dance steps. I was greatly moved by their kind gesture and by Krishna’s mercy. During the whole kirtana, I cried and danced.
The next day, after an attack occurred I remembered my experience in the temple and chanted intensely. This practice gave me the strength to fight the frustration and anxiety and psychological pains.
The most inspiring aspect of ISKCON’s philosophy is its practicality. Unlike in other organizations, no one gave me false hopes of prosperity and recovery from illness. By studying Srila Prabhupada’s teachings, I understood how Krishna consciousness helps you transcend worldly problems. By the power of bhakti, material problems become insignificant. Now whenever I think of my physical problems, I don’t get discouraged.
People in other organizations used to allure me by saying that if I did this or that I would regain my eyesight. But in Krishna consciousness nobody told me that by chanting I’d regain my vision. Rather, I was encouraged to accept the benefit of being unable to see this tempting world. Still, in the initial days I felt bad that I could not see the Chowpatty deities, Sri Sri Radha-Gopinathaji, the glories of whose beauty devotees always used to sing. Now I go in front of the deities so that They can see me, and I ask devotees around me to describe how They look.
I have full faith that the Lord and His holy names are identical, and that if I chant without offense, someday the Lord, through His names, will reveal to me His transcendental form.
Ravikant Jagtap is married and has two children. He lives in Mumbai and teaches Krishna consciousness to young couples and college students.