From Kohelet to Krishna

From Kohelet to Krishna

With ‘Vanity Karma,’ a Jewish swami comes full circle

This is a story about the big questions, among them: “What profit hath man of all his labour wherein he laboureth under the sun?”

That’s from the beginning book of Ecclesiastes — Kohelet in Hebrew — read in synagogues this Shabbat of Sukkot.

And it also addresses a smaller, easier to answer question, of interest to fewer people, among them those who attended Temple Sinai in Tenafly some 50 plus years ago: Whatever happened to Jay Israel, who used to live in Englewood? Didn’t he run off to join the Hari Krishna? What became of him?

The short answer to the smaller question: Yes, he joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He changed his name to Jayadvaita. He became a Hindu monk, or swami. And this week he published a book, “Vanity Karma,” that looks at Kohelet through the lens of Hindu teachings.

Swami Jayadvaita, originally known as Jay Israel
Swami Jayadvaita, originally known as Jay Israel

In thinking of the big questions raised by Kohelet, and discussed in my conversation with Jay Israel, I keep circling back to a conversation I once had with Rabbi Manis Friedman, the Minnesota Chabad rabbi who was close enough to Bob Dylan to get the legendary songwriter to blurb his book — but not close enough to transform Dylan into a fully observant Jew.

“He asks great questions,” Rabbi Friedman said, referring to Dylan lines such as “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?”

“But he doesn’t want to stick around for the answers.”

Kohelet certainly asks great questions — which is why it is not generally high on the curriculum at Jewish educational institutions, which prefer to inculcate the next generation with answers.

For whatever reason, however, back around 1962, when Jay, who was born in 1949, was about 13, Temple Sinai brought in a new teacher, actually a Conservative rabbi. And, perhaps out of a desire to seem relevant, he started teaching Kohelet.

“It immediately had an impact on me,” Swami Jayadvaita said. “A depressing impact. Life is vain, it told me. There’s no point in anything. It was sort of like a punch in the eye.”

The notion that “all is vanity” shocked him because it made sense. His religious school classmates continued throwing spitballs, but he was changed. He paid attention as the teacher guided him through the book, through exploration and then dismissal of bodily pleasures and of wisdom as paths to happiness. Where was the meaning in life?

True, Kohelet concludes with the admonition: “Fear God, and keep His commandments.” But the admonition was delivered not by Kohelet, the preacher, perhaps King Solomon himself, but by a separate narrator.

“It didn’t click for me,” Swami Jayadvaita said of the book’s conclusion. “It has the feeling of an appendage. It’s terrible for the reader who is convinced by Kohelet and not convinced by the narrator’s addition. It leaves you in the soup. Life doesn’t have a purpose. This was not a joyous message.”

Young Jay was not the only Baby Boom teenager in the 1960s who was searching for meaning — though he may have been one of very few who was propelled on the quest by the book of Ecclesiastes. He dropped out of high school his senior year and went to join the hippie counterculture in Manhattan. After a year or so of that, “It wasn’t really going anywhere.”

Then he stumbled upon a Krishna center on the Lower East Side, attracted by the group’s chanting. He went to their classes. “I was bombarding them with questions and challenges. They did well,” he said.

He ended up joining the group, and helping its leader and founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, typing and editing his translation of the Bhagavad Gita and other ancient Hindu scriptures.

“Ironically, the Bhagavad Gita brought me to the conclusion of the narrator of Kohelet: Life is meant for service to God,” he said. “The same questions that Ecclesiastes raises are raised in the Bhagavad Gita, but, to my way of thinking, answered more satisfactorily.”

Where Kohelet is a minor part of the Jewish Bible, with little impact other than its annual reading on the Shabbat of Sukkot, the Bhagavad Gita is the “the most accepted book across the various strands of what we would call Hindu thought,” Swami Jayadvaita said. It is a book that has accumulated centuries of commentaries and in India today is the subject of public lectures and memorization contests. There are 100,000 chanted or animated renditions or lectures available on YouTube.

“The Bhagavad Gita is a text in which there’s a crisis, in which the hero, Arjuna, is about to fight a battle he doesn’t want to fight because he’s facing all his friends and relatives on the other side,” Swami Jayadvaita said.

“He looks around and says ‘I’d rather die than fight this war. I’d rather let them kill me. He’s really in an existential crisis, asking the same questions as Kohelet: ‘Why am I here? What is the use of living?’”

At this moment, the story takes its theological — and decidedly un-Jewish — turn: “God himself has taken on the role of Arjuna’s charioteer, Krishna, and instructs him.

“The instruction is wide-ranging, and begins with an understanding of our identity as living spiritual beings. Krishna distinguishes between the external, temporary self, the body that’s born, grows up, grows old, and dies, and the soul or consciousness within the body.

“As he goes on, he develops the theme. He says that the soul, being eternal, goes from one lifetime to the next. This one lifetime is not all there is. As a person changes from a youthful body to an old body, at old age when death comes we change to a new body as one might change clothing. We take on different bodies,” he said.

This cycle of birth and death, Krishna tells Arjuna, continues until a person turns to God, Swami Jayadvaita said. The final message of the Bhagavad Gita is “that life is meant for service and devotion to God,” he said.

When he was 29 — he is now 65 —Jayadvaita earned the title “swami” by taking a vow of renunciation.

“It literally means controller of senses, but it really indicates a monk,” he said. “It’s a person who has taken a vow not to have sexual associations. He won’t marry, won’t be intimately associated with women.”

So what is it like being a monk? “I saved myself so much money over the years,” he says with a laugh.

More seriously: “Being married offers greater comfort and certain companionship. Being a monk offers you a lot of freedom. With that freedom comes the ability to concentrate on devotional service and devotional activities. Because I don’t have to worry about paying the mortgage, I can really focus on the service I’m trying to do.”

08-2-V-Vanity_Karma_book_cover_3-23-15His service “has largely been editorial,” he said. He works for the publishing company Bhaktivedanta founded, leading its activities in Africa. So far, he’s helped publish translations of the Bhagavad Gita into half a dozen African languages from the original Sanskrit.

“We’re just getting started there. There’s a billion people in Africa, 1,800 languages, 50 countries. We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said.

There’s a teaching that “A person with a renounced life should move every three days,” he said. “It’s sort of a rule of thumb. I don’t stick to it.” But he travels often, both to India and Africa and around America, sometimes staying with friends, sometimes staying in temples.

Still, the classic itinerant Hindu monks did not have permanent cell phone numbers and internet accounts, as Swami Jayadvaita does. Does the new technology change the institution?

“In the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is not recommending we just give everything up. He is not impressed with the idea that you just give up work or abandon things as being simply material. One of the teachers in the line of teaching that we follow has written a Sanskrit verse, the essence of which is that to give up things which could be used in the service of God is false renunciation; to use things in God’s service, without attachment, is real renunciation.

“If I’m using my laptop to surf the Internet and check out the latest movies and to have a good time, that’s attachment. If I give up my laptop as false, that’s artificial renunciation. If I use it to serve God, in my case by my publishing work, why should I declare it’s false? It’s part of God’s energy. Everything belongs to God: the cell phone, the laptop, what have you. Things should not be artificially disparaged as false but should be properly used,” he said.

Is he able to maintain self control when using the Internet?

He laughs. “Pretty good. There is distraction, yes. There’s a certain amount of distraction when you walk out of the door. When you use any of these things that God has given you, whether the laptop or the hut or what have you, you have to always be watching yourself and saying, ‘What am I doing here? Am I properly using my attention and engaged in God’s service, or am I grooving?’ That’s the discipline of renunciation. ‘Am I being genuine here?’ That’s the question to ask; I suppose for all our lives.”

So what about his Jewish identity?

He pauses. “It’s an interesting question,” he said. “I grew up culturally Jewish. Our family was not particularly devout. There are aspects of that culture that stay with you throughout your life.

“The idea of Krishna consciousness is that it’s not a religion one turns to by abandoning their religion, but it’s the essence of what religion is about: to cultivate one’s love for God. From that point of view, I’m a Jewish swami,” he said.

“From another angle, this is the fulfillment of Jewish culture, if the purpose of Judaism is developing one’s love for God, and the chanting of God’s name is seen as an effective means for that. In my Jewish life I wasn’t particularly interested in God or convinced by God. By Krishna Consciousness, or Bhakti Yoga as it is also called, my life is dedicated to God’s service.

“Does that make me more Jewish or less Jewish?”

In “Vanity Karma,” Swami Jayadvaita draws on Jewish and Christian commentaries to Kohelet (he does not know Hebrew) to present its teachings. And he then juxtaposes relevant excerpts from Hindu teachings, primarily the Bhagavad Gita. In some places, the two traditions agree. In others, they diverge.

“I’m not attempting to make a broad comparison between Judaism and Hinduism,” he said. “That’s way outside my purposes and I’m not qualified for that. I’m bringing together two books, with the understanding that Kohelet doesn’t speak for the mainstream of Jewish thought.”

One brief example, concerning one of the most famous passages of Kohelet, one which as Swami Jayadvaita notes was popularized in the 1960s by folk singer Pete Seeger: “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” So what is time?

In partial answer to that question, Vanity Karma tells of a section of the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna is granted a vision of God in a cosmic, universal form.

Vanity Karma tells it like this:

“Who are you?” Arjuna manages to ask, trembling, as his awe cascades into chaotic bewilderment and fear. “And why have you come?”

“I am time,” the dreadful form responds. “And I have come to destroy all.”

Outside this passage of the Bhagavad Gita quoted in

    Swami Jayadvaita’s book, time also allows things to come to fruition. This, after all, is a book decades in the making. Because even after leaving Temple Sinai far behind in his spiritual journey, Swami Jayadvaita never forgot the book of Kohelet, and it was its impact on him that spurred him to write the book.

And time also heals wounds. The Shapiro family did not greet Jay’s embrace of Krishna with delight and joy. “It really is quite a story,” he said.

“At first, certainly, my parents were taken aback, wondering what is this thing their kid has gotten into. First he gets into the sixties counterculture, which is certainly bad news. Now he gets into this. What’s going on?

“There were good sides to it. The counterculture meant drugs, a wayward, irresponsible life. I would show up at home and our rules are no drugs — not even coffee or tea, no illicit sex, no gambling, no meat eating. That’s better, from one point of view, than the hippie world.

“Still: What is this kid doing with his life?

“It was difficult for them, a difficult time. My father had a heart condition from which he expired not long after. My mother over time was perplexed but was open-minded. I’ve been blessed with a very intelligent and open-minded mom. She accommodated herself and remained open. She didn’t cut off any lines.

“Many years later, she came with me on a trip to India. That was a turning point for her. She saw the culture that I adopted in its native environment and was very favorably impressed, very appreciative. Now she’s indeed very appreciative of what we’re doing. She has a lot of Krishna friends, has visited our centers in several places in America,” he said.

A few years ago she gave a talk at the community center at her senior community in Florida about how she kept the connection to her son open. She didn’t sever relations with him; over time that enabled an understanding.

“Word got around and she was asked to give the talk again and again.

“Now, at the age of 92, she’s got a calendar full of speaking engagements. That was the theme, how she came to see the value in the life that I’ve chosen to live,” he said.

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