“The Blessed Lord said: He whose mind is fixed on My personal form, always engaged in worshiping Me with great and transcendental faith, is considered by Me to be most perfect.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.2)
The four rewards of life are dharma (religiosity), artha (economic development), kama (sense gratification), and moksha (liberation). Of these four, moksha is considered the highest reward, for the hope is that the other three rewards will eventually lead to liberation. Though these are the material benedictions enumerated by the Vedas, the list is all encompassing, meaning it applies to everyone no matter what religion they subscribe to.
The material world is governed by karma. Most people associate karma with the idea of good and bad things happening to people based on their actions. This is pretty much true, though the actual definition is more concrete. Karma is any fruitive activity, or more specifically, any activity that has an associated material reaction, good or bad. Karma is what makes the world go round; it is responsible for all the horrific tragedies that we witness as well as the great moments in our life such as the birth of our children and grandchildren. We are all spirit souls at our core, but somehow or other we have ended up in this material world where we have become embodied living beings subject to the control of nature. Our desires guide us, telling us how to act. Each action has an equal reaction or consequence. At the time of death, our desires are measured as well as our activities from this life. After taking stock, God and His representatives decide what type of body we will receive in the next life. Thus reincarnation is governed completely by karma.
“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.6)
There are various heavenly and hellish planets but residence there is only temporary. At the expiry of our deeds, we are forced to return to this material world. The example of King Yayati is often cited to illustrate this point.
“’I was a great king on Earth, owning the whole world for my dominion. Leaving it, I acquired by dint of religious merit many high regions …I was then fallen from Nandana, my religious merits gone! I heard in the skies, O king, the voices of the celestials exclaiming in grief,–Alas! What a misfortune! Yayati, with his religious merits destroyed, though virtuous and of sacred deeds, is falling!“ (King Yayati describing his falling down from heaven, Mahabharata)
Moksha, or liberation, is our ticket out of this repetitive cycle of birth and death. Though it sometimes may be difficult to notice, our life and everything related to it is temporary. Events and occurrences also constantly repeat themselves. For example, we may be very hungry today and can’t wait to eat our next meal. After eating, that hunger is gone but that same feeling is guaranteed to return. When the time comes, we will again eagerly anticipate the next meal which will remove the hunger pains. When we are hungry, we don’t necessarily think back to the last time we felt the same way or the experiences we went through. This is the work of maya. She is God’s illusory energy governing the material world who makes us forget our past experiences. In a similar manner, we may wake up in the morning feeling very tired and desiring more sleep. Yet once we get out of bed and get in the swing of things, that longing for sleep disappears. Nevertheless, come the next morning, we are sure to crave extra sleep again, not remembering how we felt the previous day after having gotten up. These are just a few examples of many that illustrate the repetitive nature of things.
It takes some intelligence to notice these patterns. Those who eventually do notice them often ask the question, “What is the point to all this? Why am I here? How do I get out of this repetitive cycle?” This is where liberation comes in. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, states that anyone who thinks of Him at the time of death will no longer have to take birth in the material world. They immediately go to His spiritual planet where they enjoy eternal association with Him. This is the highest form of liberation. There are four other types of liberation as mentioned in the Vedas:
“In the spiritual world there are five kinds of liberation. Sayujya-mukti is a form of liberation in which one merges into the impersonal existence of the Supreme Lord, called Brahman. Another form of liberation is sarupya-mukti, by which one receives features exactly like God’s. Another is salokya-mukti, by which one can live in the same planet with God. By sarsti-mukti one can have opulences similar to the Supreme Lord’s. Another type enables one to remain always with God as one of His associates, just like Arjuna, who is always with Krishna as His friend. One can have any of these five forms of liberation, but of the five the sayujya-mukti, merging with the impersonal aspect, is not accepted by Vaishnava devotees. A Vaishnava wishes to worship God as He is and retain his separate individuality to serve Him, whereas the Mayavadi impersonal philosopher wishes to lose his individuality and merge into the existence of the Supreme. This merging is recommended neither by Shri Krishna in Bhagavad-gita nor by the disciplic succession of Vaishnava philosophers.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Beyond Birth and Death, Ch 5)
The Mayavadi philosophers prefer to merge into Krishna’s impersonal energy. Vaishnavas, or devotees of the Lord, do not accept this type of liberation. They immediately reject it, for this type of liberation takes away from God’s greatness. If we only think of the Lord as being Brahman, an impersonal energy or effulgence, then where is His greatness? The fact is that Brahman is only one of the Lord’s features, a subordinate one no less. Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the actual identity of God. Devotees only see God as Bhagavan and nothing else. These other features or energies are just displays of His unlimited potencies.
The difference between the devotees and those seeking impersonal liberation is the presence of love. Devotees love God. When we love someone, we voluntarily put ourselves in a subordinate position. We become completely vulnerable, something which results in incredible feelings of bliss. Loving someone means you want more for them than you want for yourself. Devotees never think of themselves as being equal to God. They spit at the thought of ever being compared to God in that way. Lord Chaitanya gave a great statement illuminating the mindset of a pure devotee:
“O almighty Lord! I have no desire to accumulate wealth, nor have I any desire to enjoy beautiful women, nor do I want any number of followers. What I want only is that I may have Your causeless devotional service in my life, birth after birth.” (Sikshashtaka)
Arjuna, the great disciple and friend of Lord Krishna, directly questioned the Lord as to which method of worship was better:
“Arjuna inquired: Which is considered to be more perfect: those who are properly engaged in Your devotional service, or those who worship the impersonal Brahman, the unmanifested?” (Bg. 12.1)
Lord Krishna then definitively declared that devotion to His personal form is superior. He also declared that the impersonalist path is a difficult one:
“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.” (Bg. 12.5)
Merging into Brahman is very difficult. In truth, the impersonalist meditators described in the Gita bear no resemblance to the Mayavadis of today. As clearly mentioned in the Vedas, for meditation to be done properly, one has to concentrate the mind on Lord Vishnu, God’s four-handed form. Yoga performed in this manner is authorized, but not recommended. In no way was it declared that God Himself was impersonal or that one can simply meditate on any form they chose. Yet that is precisely the doctrine of the modern day Mayavadis. The impersonalist sannyasis of today actually refer to each other as Narayana, thinking themselves to be equal to God. It is difficult to see what faith they have in Vishnu, if they have any faith at all. We can see that their attempts at this type of yoga meet with failure since they often fall down from their exalted position of renunciation and resort to material activities such as philanthropy and charity. The spirit soul craves individuality and activity, a fact which makes impersonalist meditation very troublesome.
The failure of the Mayavadis lies in the fact that they have no faith in Krishna, or any of His direct expansions. Taking everyone to be God or part of Brahman, they directly insult the Lord. Devotees take their direction from Krishna, who clearly states that devotion to Him is the highest form of worship. This naturally makes sense since bhakti yoga involves the exchange of love. Love trumps all other emotions. When directed towards the Supreme Lord, it becomes the most potent energy and thus represents the highest form of liberation.