Urban Devi

Conscious and Contemporary

Enlightening Dark Leaderships

Enlightening Dark Leaderships:
(Reflections for Lord Narasimhadeva’s Appearance Day)
Krishna Kanta Dasi

The Bhakti tradition is full of references to power and the misuse of power. It describes the age we live in (kali yuga) as the dark age of discord and hypocrisy, governed by unjust, spiritually blind leaders. According to the ancient text of the Bhagavat Purana, when the domination of dark rulers becomes excessive, it is the love within the hearts of Bhakti Yoga practitioners that will summon the counterforce to defeat it.

This Friday, April 28th, the Bhakti tradition honors one such devotee by the name of Prahlad, whose love for God was so grand it displaced the most tyrannical, evil king at the time: his own father, Hiranyakashipu.

In the seventh canto of the Bhagavat Purana, Hiranyakashipu’s abusive governance is described as causing the whole universe to shake in fear. All, that is, except for Prahlad, who pours his heart into chanting the Holy Names of Krishna instead. Then, in a dramatic display of protective love for his dear devotee, Divinity himself descends as a fierce half-man, half lion, by the name of Narasimhadeva, to obliterate the cruel ruler’s brutal power and restore the peace of the citizens.

Illustration by Annapurna Dasi

It is easy to feel helpless under governance we may not agree with. When the values of political leaders around us reflect the age of kali, even the most faithful among us can become depressed and discouraged. Not all of us will dive into the chanting of the Holy Names with the same vigor and faith that Prahlad always had. In fact, this was the case for Arjuna, the protagonist in the Bhagavad Gita. Having felt pressured to fight in a war for a government he didn’t trust, Arjuna became overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and despondence. Agonizing over how he might prevent the battle from happening, Arjuna felt utterly powerless.

What is power? There are many words for power in Sanskrit, the language of the Gita. One of them is vibhuti. “Bhuti” relates to oneself and “vi” relates to expression, indicating that power rests in the pure expression of the self. When we are connected to our core and are expressing ourselves from that inner source of peace, safety and happiness—as Prahlad was—we are no longer intent on controlling what is happening around us. We are also able to express ourselves more authentically, instead of having our expressions colored by our fears, conditionings, false beliefs, etc. The more intent someone is on controlling the people or environment around them (as Hiranyakashipu was), the more influenced they are by their own insecurities. The practice of Bhakti Yoga reconnects us with our own source of inner power.

True power, therefore, is giving up the need to control what happens on our outside, to feel happy on the inside. Prahlad shows us the easiest way to connect with our own inner source of happiness: calling on Krishna, or chanting his Holy Names. This chanting is like a conversation between our hearts and God’s divine heart. In the Bhagavad Gita, this conversation between the soul and Divinity occurs in person between Arjuna and Krishna. In chapter thirteen Krishna informs Arjuna that he will help him come in touch with his own powers by acquiring knowledge of “the field”, or the kshetra.

The “field” is our body and everything connected to our body, including our senses, our thoughts, our feelings, desires, etc and all the transformations they go through. Familiarizing our self with everything that creates this “field,” and being able to distinguish it from the “knower of the field” at our core, (or our self, our atman) is most empowering.

The word kshetra also works as a double entendre in the Gita, indicating the field of battles that happen all around us, from battles between our family members, to political battles between rulers. So, the less overwhelmed we become with the conflicts around us (and within us), the more clearly we’ll be able to perceive them. In Bhakti Yoga we cultivate peaceful clarity of vision that is not clouded by worldly or bodily designations. Yet this can be hard to do when dark and light forces are swirling all around us, and within us!

The second line in the Gita, dharma-kshetre kuru-kshetre, emphasizes this tension between the light (dharma) and dark (Kuru) forces. The very first word in the Gita means “powerful ruler”: Dhritarasthra. Yet this ruler is blind—both literally and figuratively—for he seeks power in what he can control around him, instead of within him.

Consequently, Dhritarasthra’s greed and envy culminates in an impending battle between his family members. Rather then loving one another, they stand opposite each other, with full battalions behind them, ready to violently tear each other apart. This brutal forcefulness weighs down on Arjuna’s heart most heavily as he sees loved ones on either sides of the battlefield.

This parallel between family discord and global warfare not only characterizes the age of darkness we inhabit, but points to the battles in our own hearts. Krishna gently informs Arjuna that until he willingly faces the conflicts in his own heart he won’t be able to have a significant impact on his battling family members, and the world around him. For peace does indeed begin first with ourselves, and—as we see with Prahlad—chanting the Holy Names of God opens our hearts up to the light that will scare out the darkness of this age, the way Lord Narasimhadeva annihilated Hiranyakashipu.

In chapter eleven of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna reveals a similar display of his own supreme power to Arjuna in his virat rupa, or Universal Form. Although in Abrahamic traditions God’s supreme might—however ferocious—is held in great awe and reverence, the devotees of Krishna, prefer relating to God’s gentle sweetness. For this reason, both Krishna and Narasimhadeva are requested by Arjuna and Prahlad to hide their fearsome forms, replacing their vicious fangs with loving smiles, and their weapon-wielding arms with arms opening for an embrace. For in Bhakti Yoga, God’s love is emphasized over his fearsomeness.

In the Bhagavat Purana’s canto seven, chapter nine, Prahlad recites beautiful poetic praise to Lord Narasimhadeva that is filled with many of the same illuminations that Krishna shares with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Prahlad’s story teaches us that darkness is driven out through love. And that true love, by definition, is not coerced. It is not given on demand or through threats, and it certainly can’t be gained by violence. For even while tortured, Prahlad’s heart remained loyal to the Supreme Divine. His was a truly extraordinary faithfulness powerful enough to drawn down God himself!

Though we may feel insignificant in our own faith and love in comparison to Prahlad, he left us the formula to feel empowered: the chanting of the Holy Names. For in spite of us, this loving chanting will shine light into our hearts, dispelling the darkness within us, and, even holding the capacity to enlighten the dark leaderships in our world. Such is the power of chanting: the most essential Bhakti Yoga practice for this age of kali.  May we make this our meditation as we sing to Lord Narasimhadeva this Friday!