“Different living entities appear in different forms of dress, but according to the instruction of the Bhagavad-gita, a learned person sees all living entities equally. Such treatment by the devotee is very much appreciated by the Supreme Lord.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.11.13 Purport)
The recent election of Barrack Obama to the presidency of the United States was regarded worldwide as a landmark occasion. American has officially been a country for over two hundred years, but this was the first time in its history that a person of color, an Africa-American, was elected as president. Many thought that this day would never come, for they viewed America as a racist country. Yet, one is left to wonder whether Obama’s election was really that groundbreaking.
Black people have not been treated very well historically in America. During the country’s founding, most blacks weren’t even treated as human beings, but rather were slaves, owned and traded as property. The founding fathers struggled very hard with the issue of slavery while adopting the Constitution, eventually tabling the issue, allowing the process to continue. Slowly but surely however, slavery would meet its end, culminating with the Civil War during the early 1860s. However, even after the abolition of slavery, blacks were still discriminated against, especially in the Southern portion of the country, where they would periodically be lynched or harassed in other ways. This treatment continued for almost one hundred years, until the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s. Due to this history of racism, many blacks felt that the country was forever doomed and incapable of electing a black person to any meaningful position of power. The election of Obama was redemption for them, offering a glimmer of hope that maybe people no longer made judgments about others based on their ethnicity or skin color.
On the surface it appears that progress has been made, but according to the Vedic teachings, it hasn’t. The central tenet of any religion, but especially the Vedas, is that we are not our bodies. One may then ask, “Well, if we are not our bodies, then what are we?” The answer in Sanskrit is aham brahmasmi, “I am a spirit soul”. Our souls are certainly enclosed inside of our bodies, but this body is constantly changing. The body we had as a child is completely different from the one we have as adults, yet we don’t mourn for the death of our childhood. In the same manner, a wise person doesn’t lament over the death of the current body, which is nothing more than clothing that is given up at the time of death and then replaced again in our next birth.
“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.22)
Since most of us aren’t taught about the soul in school, we are falsely identifying with the body. Though it may be nice that a black person has been elected president, constitutionally such a person is no different than all the others who previously held the esteemed title of President of the United States. Sure their life experiences may have all been different, some enduring more discrimination growing up than others, but that is something we all deal with. The material world means a place full of miseries, dukhalayam. Every living entity is forced to suffer the fourfold miseries of life: birth, old age, disease, and death.
The Vedas declare that anyone who identifies with the gross material body is a mudha, or an ass. An animal has little to no intelligence, and is certainly not smart enough to understand the concept of the soul and changing bodies. The human being is unique in its ability to take in this information and use it for its benefit. However, if we continue to identify ourselves as black, white, man, woman, American, etc., then our intelligence is very limited. Real progress comes when we view everyone equally, as a spirit soul part and parcel of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna.
“The Blessed Lord said: He who does not hate illumination, attachment and delusion when they are present, nor longs for them when they disappear; who is seated like one unconcerned, being situated beyond these material reactions of the modes of nature, who remains firm, knowing that the modes alone are active; who regards alike pleasure and pain, and looks on a clod, a stone and a piece of gold with an equal eye; who is wise and holds praise and blame to be the same; who is unchanged in honor and dishonor, who treats friend and foe alike, who has abandoned all fruitive undertakings-such a man is said to have transcended the modes of nature.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.22)
Since most people live on the material platform, the Vedas give different directions on how material life should be governed. They state that society should be divided into four classes based off of one’s qualities. Also, the time span of one’s life should also be divided into four stages or ashramas, each progressively leading one to spiritual perfection. This system, known as varnashrama dharma, is the code for managing society with the aim of helping everyone progress spiritually. So in this system, there are material designations such as those between men and women, brahmanas, shudras, vaishyas, etc. These are all material, but one can rise above them immediately by becoming a devotee of Krishna. The bhaktas, or devotees, are above any material designation. Since they have a pure love for Krishna, they are mahajanas, or completely spiritual beings following the original principles of religion.
Many examples of this fact can be found in the Vedas. When God came to earth as the pious prince Lord Rama, He wandered through the forest for fourteen years as an exile with His wife Sita and younger brother Lakshmana. During that time, the Treta Yuga, the varnashrama dharma system was adhered to, and those living in the forest were generally viewed as lower class living entities. Basically anyone not living in a normal house, except for the brahmanas, was considered uncivilized. Early on in His travels, the Lord and His family met the Nishada chief Guha. The Nishadas were a tribe living in the forests that were generally viewed as outcastes. However, Guha showed great hospitality to Rama and His family, and for this the Lord gave Him His blessings. Guha was a pure devotee and was rewarded with the opportunity to personally offer food and hospitality to God Himself. His caste was completely meaningless, for God viewed Him very favorably.
Later on, in another incident, the Lord teamed up with the Vanara king Sugriva. Vanaras were a race of monkeys with human-like characteristics. Rama helped Sugriva regain his lost kingdom by killing his brother Vali. Sugriva was very distraught after his brother’s death, and he blamed himself for what he viewed as a horrible deed. Bewailing thus, Sugriva begged forgiveness from Rama, stating that he was just a lowly monkey with very little intelligence. Now Sugriva was a great devotee, so he was by no means unintelligent, but he was referencing a generality that existed at the time. Since they were more monkey-like than human-like, the Vanaras were especially known for their animalistic tendencies, with one of them being their penchant for getting drunk off a certain type of honey. Yet again, God overlooked these stereotypes and looked at what was in Sugriva’s heart. As pure devotees, Sugriva and his Vanara army were given the opportunity to directly serve the Lord by helping Him battle Ravana and rescue Sita. The greatest of the Vanara warriors was Hanuman, Sugriva’s chief deputy. Considered Lord Rama’s greatest devotee, Hanuman is above is all material designations. He is completely spiritual, a great soul with immense strength, able to assume any shape at will. He uses his strength only to serve the Lord and for this reason he is still celebrated today.
To serve Lord Krishna properly, Lord Chaitanya recommended everyone to follow the mode of worship subscribed to by the gopis of Vrindavana. When the Lord personally came to earth around five thousand years ago, He spent His youth in Vrindavana as a cowherd boy, the son of His foster parents Nanda and Yashoda. The gopis, the cowherd girls of Vrindavana, were completely in love with Krishna, and they spent all their time thinking of Him. They weren’t high class yogis or Vedantists. They even openly declared themselves to be unintelligent, for women didn’t receive a formal education during those times. However, their pure devotion actually made them smarter than the greatest of scholars. Many of us go to God with some personal motive, either we want something or we want relief from some ailment. The gopis however just wanted to always be with Krishna, and to always love Him. This is the highest form of worship, and for this reason Krishna is eternally associated with His gopis, the greatest of them being Shrimati Radharani.
The lesson here is that if we want to make real progress as a society, then we should all become Krishna conscious. That will immediately afford us the opportunity to break free of all material designations. Though the performance of great Vedic sacrifices requires an expert brahmanas or priest, the process of devotional service is open to anyone.
“O son of Partha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birth-women, vaishyas [merchants], as well as shudras [workers]—can approach the supreme destination.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.32)
Knowing this fact, we should all take up bhakti yoga, for that is the only path taken by all the great souls.