Q: I am very concerned with the notion held by some Hindu monks that personal relationships are useless. Can you give me any advice?

A: The idea that all material relationships are useless is an oversimplification of our precepts. This may be so from the vantage point of authentic self- and God-realization, but it is not true for those who have not attained this state. Therefore, relationships have value and should be tied to gradual spiritual progress.

Relationships are about the search for love, and in order for them to work, sacrifice is required. Indeed, this sacrifice more than anything else is what meaningful relationships are all about, and thus they stand to teach us about love even when they involve ignorance of the self and misplaced values. The frustration others express about their married life is often symptomatic of not learning from the relationship all one could learn from it. At the same time, I highly recommend monastic life for those who are psychologically suited for it.

Q: My therapist suggested I take anti-depressants. How do you feel about this?

A: Prescribed medicine need not conflict with spiritual culture and may sometimes help people become better suited for spiritual practice.

Q: All the parenting books I have read say that to effectively punish a child, you have to do it as quickly as possible, so that the child will remember what he did that was wrong and will be able to associate his misdeed with the punishment. So I don't understand how karma from past lives can be effective in punishing us, if we can't remember what we did to receive the bad karma?

A: The idea is that nature is ruthlessly just, and God is for the most part aloof from her. Karmic justice is rather impersonal. If we act within nature in a particular way, nature responds. When we attain human life, we have sufficient reasoning power to understand that there are consequences for action. We also have the chance to understand the truth about material nature, etc. from sadhus and scripture, and thus we can understand that the consequences of our pervious actions are now appearing as our present circumstances. The karmic reactions from actions performed in previous lives are not so much our teachers as are the sadhus and scripture who help us to understand our present situation for what it is. The karmic "punishment" is more the result of acting in ignorance than it is our teacher.

Hindus may submit questions for the swami to editor@swami.org. Non-Hindus with questions on Hindu basics or etiquette (such as "What do I wear to a Hindu wedding?") are invited to submit them to columnists@staff.beliefnet.com.

Q: I have a friend whom I discuss spiritual topics with and she is having a problem with fear in general and, to some extent, self-acceptance--all based on sexual abuse as a child. How does one begin to resolve this issue in a spiritual manner and what advice would you give?

A: This is a material problem, so a trained psychologist would be the best person to consult. Otherwise, fear pervades material consciousness because material consciousness involves identification with that which will not endure. Thus spiritual pursuit in general is the solution to fear.

Q: Though so many teachings are available, what message is best suited to all types of spiritual seekers?

A: Chant the names of God in kirtana. This is para upakara (ultimately beneficial) because it treats the root cause of all material problems. Hunger, for example, is only partially a problem of the stomach, and thus it will never end by feeding the stomach. Material existence is ultimately a disease of the heart (hrd-rogam), and when properly performed, kirtana is a heart exercise.

Q: I have a Deity of Sri Nathaji and I do puja daily. I have wanted a child for years but to no avail. Others worship and pray, and their prayers are answered but mine are not. Is this because there is less devotion in my prayers? I can't understand why God is not giving me a baby.

A: Try to think of what God might want from you instead of focusing on what you want from God. Then he will pay particular attention to your needs without your having to ask this of him. Such is the nature of love.

Q: Are all spirit souls ultimately going to the spiritual world or are there souls who will stay in the material realm for the rest of eternity due to the misuse of their free will or as a reaction to their offenses?

A: There are an unlimited number of conditioned souls. There will always be conditioned souls, and at the same time all conditioned souls will be liberated.

Q: There is a lot of mention of kings having two or three queens in texts such as the Ramayana. Why do they marry so many women, whereas we are asked to have only one wife? Also I was wondering about the animal killing these rajas did.

A: The Hindu kings killed animals while hunting to increase their prowess as warriors, but they did not institutionalize animal slaughter, nor did they kill cows. You are not a king and should be satisfied with one wife.

Q: What is the definition of the term "atma"?

A: The term atma refers to the self. Because we identify ourselves with the mind or body, at times atma can also refer to these concepts of self, but the full sense of self is our identity as a unit of consciousness independent of body and mind. The body and mind are actually manifestations of ignorance that cover the self-luminous atma. The perception of duality is a product of this ignorance, and the self is thus constituted of non-dual consciousness. We are not matter. We are consciousness or non-dual knowledge, and within consciousness we are a dedicating principle of consciousness. When the self identifies with the body and mind, it serves their demands. Thus the self experiences material necessity and acts out of this perceived necessity. When liberated from this oppression, it serves God in love and thus acts, not out of necessity, but out of joy.

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