Dhanurdhara Swami

Windows to the Material World

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I just finished assembling my journals into book form for a final edit. Fortunately, I finished the work before my computer crashed. I knew it was on the blink, but I dreaded the day when it need to be sent for repair. Leaving the shop on my way home, however, I felt a surprising relief, a sense of liberation. Even though I use the computer almost exclusively for my writing and correspondence, it felt as if some shackle of illusion had been lifted.

I vaguely remember a popular book from my college days called The Medium is the Message by Marshal McLuhan. His point was that the medium in which one receives information has a greater influence than the message it conveys. I recall him describing television as a cold medium because one generally learns passively from it. In contrast, he described the press as a hot medium because we have to activate our intellect in order to assimilate what we’ve read. McLuhan concluded that cold mediums, like television, make one lazy and dull the intelligence, while hot mediums have the opposite effect, regardless of the content one receives from either.

I am convinced that, like television, the medium of the computer also has insidious effects because it subtly injects one with the need for incessant distraction—an especially menacing prospect for those on a spiritual path where the mind needs to be calmed to touch one’s essence.

I lived in Vrindavana for 20 years without even a phone. I didn’t die of boredom; instead, I remained absorbed in scripture, nama (meditation on God’s names), and seva (service). To be peaceful now, I require the world at my doorstep with the click of a button, even while living in Vrindavana. Something is wrong.

According to the Svetasvatara Upanisad, God sits within our heart to observe and advise us in the form of the paramatma, the Supersoul. It describes this by the analogy of two birds in a tree: one bird is eating the fruits of happiness and distress, while the other is watching, waiting for his friend to turn to him. The observant bird is compared to the Supersoul and the engrossed bird is compared to the individual living entity. The idea is that as long as we are externally absorbed in the chatter of the mind, we cannot hear the voice of God in the heart directing us.

Riding home, unshackled from my computer, it suddenly hit me how the medium of mass communication so strongly allures us to the platform of the mind, and how the effect is so pervasive that we usually mistake our bondage for normal life. I felt cheated of my innocence, a life unfettered by the unremitting dialogue of the mind that affords one the quietude to turn toward the Lord in the heart. Sadly we have been drawn in droves to the life of the engrossed bird. Perhaps it is more like lemmings to the sea.

Just to the right of the foot of Srila Prabhupada’s (my guru’s) bed in Vrindavana hang two beautiful paintings: one of Krishna and the cowherd boys returning home from the forest of Vrindavana, the other of Radha and Krishna by the bank of the Yamuna under a kadamba tree. Srila Prabhupada called such paintings of Krishna “windows to the spiritual world.” In my early Vrindavana days, I would gaze at these masterpieces during japa and think of Srila Prabhupada’s “windows” analogy. It made so much sense. Today I thought of another “windows” analogy, and unfortunately, it made just as much sense: Computers are the windows to the material world.

Dhanurdhara Swami

The column Greetings From Vrindavan is Dhanurdhara Swami’s journal regarding the joys and challenges of the devotional path. A book of his journal entries, spanning the years 2000-2003, has been published with the same title and is available here.

7 Responses to “Windows to the Material World”

  1. This is exactly the issue I have been thinking about for the last day or so, and I was pleasantly surprised to see this post. I heard something on the radio (is radio hot or cold?) about Nature Deficit Disorder and how the use of national parks in the USA has declined alongside the rise of the internets. Many illnesses of the mind appear to be linked as well, notably ADHD. Multitasking, so admired in corporate life and thought to be a sign of intelligence, seems to be rather unhealthy. Computers make it easy, and the mind loves it. But, I agree, something is wrong.

  2. Oh, the irony of the complex age we live in. We receive such a thoughtful message about the perils the computer’s influence on introspective thought, via….. the internet.

    Thank you Maharaja.

  3. Thank you Maharaja for this note. I have thought about these points for many years. As I see it, there is a genuine conflict you bring out here:

    On the one hand we want to use all sorts of technologies in the service of God, on the other hand there are the sorts of draw-backs you’ve lucidly mentioned.

    Since most will not be able to dislodge themselves from technological means, I think that it would be helpful for Vaishnavas, and religious practitioners in general, to have examples of people who have. If this does not happen, humanity may simply forget that a non-technocrat life is even possible, and indeed complete.

  4. Haribol Prabhu! Amazing post. I’ve been thinking about this for the past few months now. The simple life = the good life.

    Your servant,
    Vivek Taneja

  5. Here is a thought: taking a vow to only check one’s mail 3 times a day: morning, midday and night, barring any extreme circumstances or legitimate needs of some other kind. It may help to prevent being our being slavishly drawn in by the fiber-optic umbilical cord at all times. A friend and I did this a few months back and it helped me see how conditioned I am by the culture of “just checking my email” all of the time.

  6. Reading this article has made me realise the difference between absorbing scriptural injunction from a book and from the screen. When reading a book, the message invariably seems to penetrate deeper and touch my core. Even though I read profound realisations from Swami’s on the net I tend to ruminate on it for a moment, then move on to the next post/article/picture. By doing so I allow the emphasis to becomes philosophical stimulation for the mind rather than food for the soul. Hare Krishna

  7. Yes, Bhakti is not renunciation. It is dedication. We dedicate that which can be used in God’s service, and only renounce that which cannot. Such renunication has been deemed by Sri Rupa Goswami as yukta-vairagya, balanced detachment. So the point of my article was not the renunciation of the Web by those who use it effectively for essential communication, but tempering the abuse of it, especially for one serious about spiritual life.