Interview with Asia Today (Arizona based newspaper)
Asia Today, an Arizona-based newspaper, interviewed Chaitanya Charan about his life and contributions, especially in sharing the Bhagavad-gita’s wisdom in today’s world. The interview is given below:
Asiatoday got an opportunity to meet a young travelling monk, Chaitanya Charan Das, from ISKCON aka Hare Krishna group. Chaitanya Charan Das is an acclaimed author, scholar, mentor, life coach, and monk. He has been an invited speaker at several international conferences on the interface of science and spirituality, including the World Peace Conference 2006 and World Peace Congress 2008 organized by UNESCO. Based in India, he has given talks at colleges and companies all over the world from Australia to America. He was visiting phoenix as part of his North America tour this year.
Asia Today(AT): It is very nice to meet you. We have heard lot about you but want to know more about of your journey to spirituality.
Chaitanya Charan Das (CCD): Nice to be here with you. I was following a normal career chart and I did engineering and was planning to come to America. I gave my GRE in 1996 and I was first in the state of Maharasthra, India to get 2350 out of 2400 at that time. And at that time my dream was two things. One was I want to achieve something extraordinary and secondly to contribute something to society. But, my criteria for achievement were primarily on academic field. I wanted to be a topper and when I got high score in GRE, I was not the first in my college, but first in the history of my university to achieve this. So, I felt my dreams come true. But then unfortunately there was no real satisfaction. Because looking at the marksheet does not give any pleasure rather someone has to come and congratulate you then only you feel happiness. I felt that I am becoming more dependent on others for my happiness. That time I came across Bhagavad Gita (BG). which helped me to understand that the real happiness is found within through spiritual realization and I started following the principles of BG. I was positively transformed. I had a short temper that time but that also substantially went down. Before that time I was looking at BG more like a religious book or a philosophical book. But later I realized that BG can also be a book for self development and for self empowerment. Parallel with my studies, I was doing some social service in my college. And as part of that social service group, I used to go to the slum and teach slum children. I would teach them english, maths and history and I found them most of the kids came from dysfunctional home. like father is alcoholic or there is so much of domestic abuse in the house. And I felt that I was really helping them substantially by teaching them maths, history etc. I was very much convinced about the power of education to help people. During that time, one of my friend was very much into social service. He went to a village and he saw how much alcoholism is creating havoc to poor people. We decided to make an anti alcohol campaign also. My friend by his effort got the whole village deaddicted from alcohol. And one day he was shattered seeing that in local panchayat election, local panchayat member has brought several free alcohol bottles and not only the father but the children are drunk. And that time I felt that by offering academic education, I am opening new options for people but people don’t just need options but they also need the inner capacity to choose wisely the right option. And that inner capacity to choose wise option, I felt, can come by sharing the principles of BG. By that time I passed out from my college, one year senior to me was a student who had been university topper throughout. And he had got the highest paid job in the history of our college that time. But he was a chain smoker and within the first 6 months of his high paying job, he has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and he died. So here it struck me that whether it is uneducated people or well educated toppers working in MNC, they all had something within them which could destroy them. And then I felt that by the knowledge of BG, we become empowered internally to make healthier choices and to resist harmful forces that reside within us. Thereafter I worked in software company for sometime but I felt that whatever I was contributing to society through writing software programs can be done by several hundreds of other people. I felt that I discovered something more valuable to contribute to society. As I said earlier, BG has been initially typecasted in my mind as Hindu religious book or as a abstract philosophical text but then after I saw it as a spiritual book which is for self empowerment. And as I was having a scientific background because of my engineering I felt that science is one big mountain of knowledge and spirituality is another big mountain of knowledge. But there are few bridges between them. I felt that with my training and experience I could contribute to the society best by presenting the wisdom of BG in contemporary scientific logical terms. And thats how I decided to dedicate my life that time onwards by studying and sharing the wisdom of BG.
AT: When you become the ISKCON’s member?
CCD: In 1996, I got introduced to ISKCON and in 1998 I got passed out from my college. I worked for a year and in Feb 1999, I joined ISKCON as a monk.
AT: Somebody took you to ISKCON or you just find you own way?
CCD: In 1996, after I have given my GRE exam, it has been my anticlimax as even though I achieved what I wanted but I was not satisfied. (Smiling) I was kind of frustrated by success. Then at that time, one of my childhood friend has become introduced to ISKCON and he gave me a BG. My first reaction was I have already read this and I know this. But then when I saw how transformed he was, I was surprised. He had been a typical materialist happy go lucky kind of person but now he was so sober, gentle and transformed. I felt may be there is something in the BG that I have missed out. That was in Sep 1996.
AT: Then you became a follower of ISKCON temple from then onwards. One more question. You talked about two things. Spirituality and Science. So, so far how much successful you are in building bridge between these two.
CCD: Ok. I think making a bridge is a huge effort which will require not just one individual but the whole groups of individual working for several generations. But in my own small way, I feel that I am able to make some contribution. In last 17-18 years now, I have been speaking on BG, writing on it, since 2011 I have been writing daily on BG 300 words article in my blog Gitadaily and thousands of people reading all over the world. And I feel that on many occasions people are dramatically benefitted. In 2015, when I came first to a tour of America I was speaking at the OHIO state university to a Vegetarian society on regulating our mental diet. After that session, one American science graduate student came to me and told me that just before this class, he had been contemplating suicide. He had been a steady relationship but his girl friend left him for some other boy. While he was contemplating suicide somehow he has seen poster for this program. He felt something within him said lets go for it. And now after that session as he understood that it was not he who wants to commit suicide rather uncontrolled mind within him which was prompting him to do this. And by understanding this wise inside him, he resisted. Again in 2016 when I go to same university I saw that boy again and now he is well situated and good at his career and now in another relationship and he has internalized the principles of BG. So I feel that there are definitely people who are benefited by the wisdom of BG. I see myself not as a teacher of BG, I feel that the Gita teaches me and teaches through me. There is a great satisfaction in becoming a channel for higher wisdom.
AT: Any message for the reader of Asia today and any particular instruction for where to go to get peace:
CCD: I would say 3 points. BG offers a vision of light which is very devotional and dynamic. What you are is God’s gift to you but what you become is your Gift to God. God has given us something. For some it is more and for some it is less. Whatever we have if we use it well, we can always make valuable contribution in life.
We dont have to compare ourself with anyone else. Comparison is the cancer which can sap out energy. If God has wanted us to be someone else he would have made us someone else. God has made you “you” and BG wisdom can empower you the best “you”.
One last point, spiritual wisdom is not just a spare wheel in our life. When things dont work then we will go to temple or we will pray to God. We keep it like a spare wheel. But if we make spiritual wisdom as the steering wheel of our life, we make it pivot by which we shape our decisions then we will find that whatever life sends our way we will be able to bring the best out of it. In life good and bad things will anyway happen. But with BG wisdom, we can bring best out of the good and also of the bad. That is what Arjuna did, he was devastated at the start, but by the Gita wisdom he was inspired at the end. Arjuna’s bow represents our determination. At the start of BG he kept aside his bow saying I can not fight. But by the end he raised his bow again and he was ready to fight. Similarly, life diversities make us put aside our bow. I can not do any thing. We give up. But by hearing the message of BG, Arjuna became confident. We can also become confident by the understanding of the God’ benevolence, the God’s love for us. And we can be inspired in loving determination like Arjuna to make our contribution in life.
AT: From where you to get your inspiration for your classes and practical and wonderful examples which makes it easy for people to understand.
CCD: Greatest inspiration for me is Srila Prabhupada who authored the BG as it is. When he was all alone on the ship, jaladyuta, who was carrying him, he had two heart attacks. Here is a person who is alone and practically penniless, who is having no medical attention. Normally when we get a heart attack lot of relatives come and take us to hospital. But he was all alone and he was thinking not that God should save him rather he was praying oh god make me an instrument of your compassion. Make me dance according to your tune. So that I can share your message with the world. This selfless dedication of srila prabhada is my enduring inspiration. He was a preeminent teacher of BG and he has inspired several of other people to teach and thousand to live on the principles of BG. So, primarily from Srila Prabhupada and many other teachers who in their own way are sharing the wisdom of BG from different perspective, I get inspiration. And I try to share that wisdom in contemporary language. Srila prabhupada would say that we should present BG message in the language of science. I see that science is one language but every generation has ethos and that timeless wisdom should be presented in a timely way according to the idiom and ethos of the generation. So, I try to serve all the previous Gita teachers by taking inspiration from there and presenting in contemporary language using contemporary examples. In this way, I serve in my own small way in bridging between traditional and contemporary world.
By your work worship the lord. Tool of my trade is word to beautify and glorify the lord.
AT: Is everything about God is written in BG?
CCD: See, God is greater than any religion or any book. God is greater than any philosophy. We can not say that everything about God can be understood from any book. Gita tells us essential things which we need to know by which we can know and love God. All sacred books are meant for God. God is not meant for the book. Religion is meant for God not other way. When there is a religious conflict which often happen because some religion claim that God is their monopoly and God can only be known through their religion. Here there is a fundamental mismatch. God is bigger than any religion that we have. BG actually focuses on transcendental essence. At the end, BG says a verse sarva dharman parityajaya [Bg 18.66]. Give up all externals, give up all religion formalities and focus simply on loving devotion to me. In that sense BG takes us to the essence of the spirituality and gives us the instrument both intellectual and practical and by which we can realize and relish the essence. God knowledge is exhaustive. Gita can guide us in our journey of knowing God so that we can keep relishing our journey.
AT: What is biggest problem in this so called developing world where we have so many things to relish? And why should we turn towards spirituality?
CCD: Two things – Just that I have good food does not mean I don’t need oxygen. Food is important. But oxygen is also important. Just that I am great in professional life does not mean I don’t need family life. Great success in professional life can not compensate for my failure in family life. There are different areas of life. In today;s world we have tremendous progress of science in material world. But material is external to us. We have very good gadgets. In past people used to sweat in the sun but today we have air conditioning but people are still sweating not because of heat but because of stress. So we have the paradox of people having comfort but they are comfortably miserable. We are externally going right, but internally very few things are going right for us. Never before in the history of world so many people committed suicide. According to statistics, one million is committing suicide every year. One in every 40 sec. and this figure of one million is more than who are being killed in murders/wars/and violent crimes together. So, people are killing themselves more than getting killed. There is something fundamentally wrong here. We are learning to control outer world but not inner world. BG gives the knowledge by which we can control the inner world. Arjun was the great warrior but he was internally disturbed by confusion and he was reduced to tears. BG demonstrates here that inner war is far more decisive than outer war. BG knowledge help Arjuna to win the inner world. Science can makes things better but spirituality can make people better. We need a balance of science and spirituality. For our fulfillment, peace and true enjoyment we need to get better control over the inner world. And that is what provided by the wisdom of BG.
AT: When did you start writing daily on the Gita? What inspired you to do so?
CCD: I have been writing daily since November 1, 2011. I had been reading the Bhagavad-gita daily for nearly fifteen years before that and I had found it unfailingly, inexhaustibly inspiring. And I had been sharing that inspiration through my talks.
During my talks, I would often coin succinct statements that summarized in English some of the Gita’s teachings, especially those relevant in our personal and social lives. Many in my audiences appreciated those succinct statements and asked me to elaborate on them. So, I made a list of those statements and started writing brief articles on them.
Knowing that everyone is hard-pressed for time, I wanted to keep the articles as short as possible. I found that on an average people can read 100 words in a minute. So, I felt that if I could write a 300-word meditation on the Gita, it would appeal to people as they could get a daily connection with the Gita in an accessible and appealing way.
I had seen similar short reflections written by teachers of other traditions on their respective sacred books such as the Bible and the Koran. Yet no one was writing similarly on the Gita. I thought, “It has been a source of wisdom for millions of millennia. Why should it be deprived of a similar honor?”
Actually, I felt that I was not qualified for writing on the Gita daily, but none of my spiritual mentors had the time to do this. The spiritual teacher who has influenced me the most, A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, author of Bhagavad Gita As It Is, urged seekers to write daily for deepening their understanding. I see myself as a Gita student who writes on the Gita to understand it better. I don’t teach the Gita – the Gita teaches me and teaches through me.
AT: What do you think is the greatest need of people in today’s world? And how Bhagavad Gita or GitaDaily articles can fulfill that?
CCD: Martin Luther King said, “We have guided missiles and misguided men. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power.” Through science and technology, we have transformed our outer world. But our inner world remains an area of profound darkness and even distress. Over a million people commit suicide every year. This figure is more than the number of people killed in wars, terrorist attacks and murderous crimes combined together. More than the number of people being killed by others is the number of people killing themselves. Going wild within the human psyche is a force that is dark and deadly.
That force brought Arjuna, a battle-heartened warrior to a breaking point, even before the battle started. And that same force is bringing countless people to breaking point today.
There is an acute need to illumine our inner life so that we can identify and rectify the malevolent forces within us. The Gita did that for Arjuna; it did that for millions over millennia; it can do that for all of us too.
AT: What kind of issues do you deal with in your Gita daily articles?
CCD: I primarily focus on the Gita’s capacity to tap the hidden depths of human potential. We all have within us so much potential that is dissipated because of our stray thoughts, wild desires and unconsidered actions. By applying the Gita’s principles, we all can discover that we are meant for much bigger things than what we may have thought – transformational achievement and enduring fulfillment can be ours if we empower ourselves with Gita wisdom.
I try to center the Gita-daily articles on one of the following six themes:
- Growing through life’s reversals
- Learning to see the world with the eyes of the Gita
- Understanding important Gita concepts in small accessible thought capsules
- Empowering themselves with Gita insights to choose intelligent pleasures
- Applying the Gita’s teachings for leading a principle-centered life
- Using Krishna’s words to perceive his presence in our heart and life and thereby learning to love him
AT: Do you think that the Gita should be declared India’s national book?
CCD: The question has become unnecessarily politicalized and gone into the area of religious one-upsmanship. Declaring the tiger to be India’s national animal doesn’t mean discriminating against other animals – it just means acknowledging the specialness of the tiger for Indians.
Similarly, if we consider the formation of modern India, no book was as wide-ranging in inspiring Indian independence fighters. Right from those who championed non-violent political agitation to those who advocated counter-aggression, the whole gamut of Indian leaders derived inspiration from this timeless classic.
Prior to that, the Gita has inspired millions in India for millennia. Given this rich stamp of the Gita on the formation of the fabric of India, declaring it to be India’s national book is entirely fitting.
At the same time, if such a declaration is going to inflame communal fears and if such fears can’t be addressed by proper education, then probably the energy spent on canonizing the Gita as India’s national book can be better used in sharing its wisdom. Applying the Gita in life will benefit India and will enable India to benefit the world by becoming an exemplar and exponent of universal spiritual wisdom.
AT: Stress is a major problem in today’s world. How can the Gita help us deal with it?
CCD: While stress is a complex problem with multiple causes, one major cause is the tendency of the mind to focus on things that are not in our control, instead of things that are in our control. I often say, “Worry is the interest we pay on loans we haven’t yet taken.”
The Gita’s spiritual knowledge and its recommended practice of meditation can help us relish inner security and serenity. By this, we can face stress-causing uncertainty with greater calmness and effectiveness.
At the end, Asia today team thanked Chaitnya Charan Prabhu for his wonderful message and insight to spiritualism.