“Devotional service, beginning with the chanting of the holy name of the Lord, is the ultimate religious principle for the living entity in human society.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 6.3.22)
The principles that bring about spiritual freedom, those regulations that serve as the foundation for bhakti-yoga, are so nice that they immediately lead to benefits, both short and long term. The principles of the religion of divine love are pretty straightforward: love God with all your heart, and refrain from the most harmful activities such as meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. By following this regulated way of life, consciousness immediately becomes altered, causing the primary focus to shift from worldly objects to matters of spirituality twenty-four hours a day. The discipline that brings about this change is superior to any other system, spiritual or otherwise, not only because of its direct relation to the inherent qualities of the soul, but also because of its tireless nature. Meditation can be practiced for an hour or two at a given time, but the remaining portion of the day leaves the sincere student vulnerable to the attacks of the sense objects, which constantly demand attention, love and sacrifice. The same holds true with the knowledge-acquiring process, as once intelligence has been elevated, a practical application is necessary to realize true benefits. But the secret to bhakti is not found in the processes themselves, but rather, in the object of worship, the beneficiary of all sacrifice and penance. Wholehearted dedication to mundane objects such as wood and any manifestation of matter can’t provide the same benefits even if the identical procedures from bhakti are applied. The continued existence of the phenomenal world is due solely to the innumerable religious systems, or activities based on manmade, mentally concocted ultimate conclusions, that are followed. The degree of the divergence from the flawless principles belonging to bhakti and their intended beneficiary thus determines the intensity of the detriment witnessed by the follower led astray. Therefore, under all circumstances, one should remain steadfast on the path of bhakti by dedicating their sincere efforts towards the only object worthy of our time, sacrifice, words and efforts: Lord Krishna.
Understandably, after hearing the glories of divine love and the need for the permanent shift in consciousness, the not fully convinced listener, the skeptic who wants to challenge the recommendations put forth by the acharyas, or spiritual leaders who lead by example, will ask many “why” questions. “Why do I have to stop eating meat? Why do I have to chant, ‘Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare’, sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads? Can’t I just do something else all day and still be engaged in bhakti?” Mind you, these are just the questions of those who are somewhat interested in the regulative principles of freedom of bhakti-yoga but not initially willing to wholeheartedly follow the dictates of the spiritual master, or guru. The Vedas, the scriptural tradition which espouses the supremacy of bhakti over all other processes, declare that one must offer humble service to a bona fide guru in order to make progress in spiritual life. This concept shouldn’t be very difficult to understand, as we have to follow teachers in all other areas of life. Even those who are self-starters, the passionate individuals who forego college to start their own businesses, follow the advice and instruction of authority figures at some point in their lives. When engaged in simple arguments with friends, there is never any worthwhile conclusion reached. The primary benefit to being friends with someone is that you have a peer, an equal. How can someone who we relate to on an intellectual and emotional level be more intelligent than us? How can they explicitly teach us anything?
“I have in the past addressed You as ‘O Krishna,’ ‘O Yadava,’ ‘O my friend,’ without knowing Your glories. Please forgive whatever I may have done in madness or in love. I have dishonored You many times while relaxing or while lying on the same bed or eating together, sometimes alone and sometimes in front of many friends. Please excuse me for all my offenses.” (Arjuna speaking to Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 11.41-42)
For knowledge to be properly received and understood there must be a teacher and a student. The roles may reverse from time to time, but the dynamic is still the same. A student who is not sincere in their service offered to the guru will find many difficulties along their journey towards enlightenment. In fact, the more one is adherent to the kind advice provided them by the spiritual master, the more quickly they will see the benefits of the instructions offered. When presented information about the religion of love, not only are there skeptical students, those who may not offer their objections directly in the presence of the guru but at least have a challenging mindset within, but there are also others who will take the principles of bhakti and apply them to worldly objects and entities of interest who have no spiritual potency. By constitution, every single living entity is a spirit soul at the core. The spiritual spark is the essence of life, the instigator of activity. Though individual spirit is quite powerful, its potencies pale in comparison to those of God, He who is known as the Supreme Spirit, or Paramatma. The living entity is truth, or Brahman, but the Supreme Lord is Parabrahman.
Only God, or one of His non-different forms, of which there are many, is eligible for worship. This isn’t to say that we are forced into this relationship. Rather, just as with the friendships and other affectionate relationships that we voluntarily form in our daily affairs, there is a benefit to be gained from interaction with our spiritually linked reservoir of pleasure. Shri Krishna, who is known as the original form of Godhead according to the Vedas, is not only worthy of worship from every single living entity due to His status as the original proprietor and supreme enjoyer, but He is also the universal best friend. As such, His pleasure automatically equates to our pleasure. If we are truly friends with someone else, their happiness brings joy to our heart. Only the worst miser, one who is living completely in anguish and envy, would not be elated at the good fortune received by his friend.
The formation of a loving attachment through bhakti-yoga, the linking of the individual soul with the Supreme Consciousness through acts of love, brings the highest benefit. True affection only travels in both directions when the relationship is entered into voluntarily; otherwise the result is that of indentured servitude. The person offered the service in the unidirectional exchange of love may be benefitted, but the server certainly doesn’t feel any pleasure. But there is not even a hint of this defect with Krishna, as since He is all-attractive, the servitor automatically feels the greatest bliss by kindly chanting His names, reading books about Him, serving His devotees and dedicating all thoughts to Him. The more one sheds their jealousy, resentment, anger and dislike of Krishna, the more they will reap the benefits of bhakti-yoga.
The devoted skeptic, though, will view the principles of bhakti-yoga as a separate entity, studying just the activities while simultaneously detaching the procedures from their object of interest. This is indeed a grievous error, as the principles themselves are meaningless without Krishna. Dharma, or religiosity, only exists to elevate the conditioned soul to the platform of loving service to God. Though the exact rules and regulations to achieve the pinnacle of consciousness may vary depending on a person’s age, spiritual affiliation and disposition in life, the end-goal is always the same. Therefore the processes themselves aren’t of primary importance. Dharma is an essential characteristic, and when applied to spirit, it speaks to the individual soul’s natural attachment to God. Dharma turns into a system of religiosity when processes are adopted that help maintain one’s essential characteristic. In this respect, dharma can apply to many areas of interest, as there are rules and regulations applying to all sorts of endeavors aimed at maintaining a primary characteristic which leads to a palatable, though albeit temporary, condition. The end-result is what is important, not necessarily the rules and regulations.
“It should be understood that all species of life, O son of Kunti, are made possible by birth in this material nature, and that I am the seed-giving father.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.4)
To see how more granular dharmas can vary in their effectiveness, let’s study one simple example. Kindness, or being nice to others, is certainly a beneficial behavioral characteristic. Holding on to this quality is critically important for the bhakta because kind behavior is an indication of a heightened level of consciousness. If one is following the regulative principles of freedom faithfully under the guidance of the spiritual master, there will hopefully come a time when they truly realize the greatness of the Lord and His inherent relationship with all forms of life. When a glimpse of Krishna’s greatness is revealed and understood, the dedicated devotee will have love, respect and compassion for every form of life, including the animals, because the purified angle of vision allows for a proper surveying of the external world, giving an almost x-ray vision-type ability, where all life forms are seen for their spiritual beauty. Universal brotherhood, where even the large animals all the way down to the tiny ants are respected, is only achieved through bhakti and no other process. One may ascend to different levels of expanded inclusion in their fraternal feelings, but the resulting vision will always remain defective unless and until the original source of life, God, is understood and worshiped.
Elevation to bhakti is not measured by how many people you hate and despise, but rather, how many more different entities you love. Especially for those with a higher level of spiritual knowledge, the easiest thing to do in the world is criticize somebody else. “Eww, look at that karmi! I can’t believe they waste all their time every day just earning money. Such fools! Eww, look at that dog; it just runs around all day and does nothing. Eww, look at that drug addict, all worried about how they’re going to shoot up or drink tonight.” Such sentiments and observations are readily available even in the conditioned stage, so one who is on the path towards liberation from the cycle of birth and death, something only secured through pure Krishna consciousness, need not indulge in meaningless hatred for others. Indeed, the topmost transcendentalist is referred to as a paramahamsa, or supreme swan. A swan has the unique ability to separate milk from a mixture of milk and water. A truly enlightened individual, being the best at separating pure goodness from a seemingly homogeneously contaminated mixture, sees everyone for who they are, a spiritual spark. A paramahamsa can extract the good from every person and every situation.
While kindness is certainly indicative of a high level of consciousness and love, it is not always the best policy. For instance, if one of our children should snatch a bottle of chemical cleaner from underneath the kitchen cupboard and decide to start drinking it, our kindness would be worthless. If we sat back and said, “Oh, this is my child, I love them so much. My policy is that of kindness, so I can’t criticize what they’re doing or even try to stop them.” Actually, such an attitude would be incredibly foolish and sinful at the same time. From the variety of circumstances and what can result from inaction, we see that kindness itself is not even always pious behavior. Rather, one has to measure every activity and every behavior in terms of the desired palatable condition, or dharma. For the parent, the occupational duty is to see to the safety and health of the children. If a child lies, cheats, steals, or takes to dangerous activity, it is up to the parent to be very firm and vehement in their criticism and instruction. Modesty and unnecessary kindness will not do anything for the child who is on the wrong path.
There are right ways to do things and wrong ways. To feed the entire body, one must put food into the mouth, which subsequently transports the nutrients in a digestible form to the stomach. Even in cases with ill patients who need feeding tubes, the stomach is still the distributing organ. If out of haste or dedication to the neglected body parts one decides that they will offer their services to the feet and hands instead, there will be nothing gained. We can offer food to our foot all we want, but this will in no way provide any nutrients to the body. Similarly, we can’t just chant the word “wood” over and over again, sit in front of a tree to offer our respects, and expect anything tangible to result. The only worthy beneficiary of devotional acts is God; otherwise the activities undertaken can’t be considered bhakti or even authorized.
Sadly, in the world we live in there are many such unauthorized dharmas adopted and recommended. Service and love are offered to all sorts of entities who are incapable of reciprocating on any notable level. Love offered to a movie star or celebrity brings nothing back to the fan. Maybe the fanatic is able to avoid dangerous behavior during the time of their worship, but as far as consciousness goes, there is no benefit. The secret to success in life, to finding eternal happiness, is a proper shift in thought processes. One may be a dedicated servant of matter, spending all their time accumulating more wealth and possessions, but at the end of the day, if their way of thinking isn’t altered, no amount of material acquisition will bring any lasting satisfaction. In this sense, the spiritually ignorant rich man is no better off than the destitute beggar.
The degree of deviation from the bona fide principles of bhakti determines the intensity of the detriment received by the performer. Unfortunately, even in the arena of spirituality many unauthorized entities are taken to be the ultimate object of worship. In the Vedic tradition, the worship of the devas, or gods, is very prevalent. Though Krishna, or Vishnu, is the ultimate form of Godhead, the singular divine entity, there are numerous godlike figures in charge of the various aspects of the material creation. They are known as suras, or great devotees of Vishnu. If even the suras are wholly aware of Krishna’s supremacy, then surely there would be no reason for others to take any embodied deva as the vara, or chief. Yet this is precisely what happens, as the materially conscious become enamored by the benedictions received from the pleasing of the exalted demigods in the sky. The monists, those with a poor fund of knowledge resulting from remaining stuck on the platform of logic and argument, further delude the minds of the innocent by proclaiming that there is no difference between any of the devas, including Krishna. One can worship any divine figure and be equally as benefitted.
Yet only Krishna, or one of His non-different Vishnu forms, is the giver of pure bhakti, which brings a return to the original constitutional position of the soul. Other demigods can certainly help one along in their devotional efforts, but material benedictions themselves don’t relate to the plight of the soul. Even Mahadeva, the greatest deva in charge of the material creation, fixes his mind on the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu every day. He can grant liberation, or mukti, but only through whispering the holy name of Rama, another form of Vishnu, into the ears of those who die in the city of Kashi. This wonderfully generous behavior shown by Mahadeva, who is ever worthy of respect and adulation, further substantiates the claims made by the Vaishnavas pertaining to the potency of the holy name. The principles of bhakti can be imitated in other endeavors, but there will never be any lasting benefits. Such behavior shouldn’t even be attempted, as the further the invalid object of worship is from Krishna, the greater the plunge into the depths of hellish life there will be. Krishna is the fountainhead of all forms of Godhead, and devotional service to Him is similarly the origin of all religious practice. In this age there is no need to bother with any other form of spirituality, as bhagavad-bhakti, pure devotion to the Lord, will provide all the results in the shortest amount of time.