“My dear Arjuna, only by undivided devotional service can I be understood as I am, standing before you, and can thus be seen directly. Only in this way can you enter into the mysteries of My understanding.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 11.54)
Question: There are so many different religions out there, each having their own scriptures and teachings. How do I tell which one is correct?
Answer: This is a question that comes up quite often from aspiring transcendentalists and those who are generally inquisitive about religion. There are indeed many different religions and scriptures, and this fact can be a huge stumbling block towards making spiritual advancement. In many cases, people can become confused and led down the wrong path.
Authorized religious scriptures must be studied in a mood of devotion. The words are there for everyone to see, but one cannot understand them fully by using a skeptical eye. We see that many great scholars study and translate the various Vedic texts, but even after reading these works in depth, they have no knowledge of Krishna, or God. Rather, they end up comparing and contrasting the various religions, trying to find similarities and common ground. Religious scriptures are not meant to be picked apart in this way. This type of study leads people to think that they are smarter than God and that they can understand the master plan behind the universe. “Oh, these are simply mythological stories meant to be symbolic. There are similar stories in all the religious scriptures. Some person must have concocted these stories to teach a lesson to people.” This is a flawed mindset. This philosophy then descends into downright atheism, where people start thinking that God is just a spirit or energy, and that we are all actually God. This is the mindset of the Mayavadis.
What is passing as the Hindu religion today is not in concert with the lessons found in the Vedas, the original scripture for mankind emanating from India. According to the Vedas, God can be realized in three distinct features: Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan. The impersonalist philosophers, who make up the bulk of those propounding the Hindu religion today, are stuck on the two subordinate features, Brahman and Paramatma. Brahman is the impersonal effulgence of the Lord, an energy that pervades all of creation. Paramatma is the Lord’s expansion as the Supersoul into the hearts of every living entity. These features certainly do exist, but the Lord’s primary feature is that of Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. We are people, personal individuals with an identity borne of the spirit soul. In a similar manner, God also has an original identity, even though He can expand Himself into unlimited forms.
The Mayavadis don’t accept the feature of Bhagavan. Since they take everything to be maya, or the illusory energy governing the material world, they even take God’s personal expansions to be products of maya.
“Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form. They do not know My transcendental nature and My supreme dominion over all that be.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.11)
Incorporating interesting facts from all the major religions, the Mayavada philosophy is very popular because it tells people to worship the Self, the individual spirit soul, instead of God. “If you do something good, don’t give credit to God, but give credit to yourself.” This is their philosophy. Of course, if the atma (soul) is God, then how did it end up in this conditioned state as a human being, where it is subject to the repeated cycle of birth and death? If the Self is God, then how can it be controlled? The very definition of God is that He is the Supreme Controller, parameshvara. Ishvara parama krishna is the definitive statement, meaning “the Supreme Controller is Krishna”. Krishna is God, or Bhagavan, the Supreme Person who is separate from all of us. We are part and parcel of God, so we are similar to Him in quality, but quantitatively we are different. He is the controller and we are the controlled. Worship of the Self is certainly authorized, but this method is subordinate to direct service to God Himself. If one contemplates the Self, hoping to merge into Brahman, but at the same time denies the existence and authority of God, then they are doomed to failure.
“Literature or knowledge that seeks the Supreme Being can be accepted as a bona fide religious system, but there are many different types of religious systems according to the place, the disciples and the people’s capacity to understand.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 19.146 Purport)
If all of these facts relating to God are true, then why even have different religions? Why not just have one scripture for all of mankind? This was actually the case at the beginning of creation. Lord Krishna imparted knowledge of the Veda to the sun god, Vivasvan:
“The Blessed Lord said: I instructed this imperishable science of yoga to the sun-god, Vivasvan, and Vivasvan instructed it to Manu, the father of mankind, and Manu in turn instructed it to Ikshvaku.” (Bg. 4.1)
This single Veda was sufficient in the first age of creation, known as the Satya Yuga. The world that we live in constantly goes through cycles of creation and destruction, with each creation divided into four time periods, or Yugas. We currently live in last Yuga known as Kali. These divisions are noteworthy because man’s intelligence and adherence to dharma, or religiosity, gradually diminishes with each successive Yuga. For this reason, God brings about different religious scriptures and teachings, so as to allow people living in each age to succeed in spiritual life. For example, the recommended process for self-realization is different for each age. In the Satya Yuga, strict meditation was recommended. In the Treta Yuga, people used to perform very elaborate and costly sacrifices in order to please God. In the Dvapara Yuga, many great temples were erected where people would regularly perform worship of the Lord’s deity, His archa-vigraha incarnation. In this age of Kali, the recommended path is sankirtana, or the congregational chanting of the Holy name of God. If we look around us, we see that most people in society spend very little time talking about or contemplating God. Governments around the world are preoccupied with economics and increasing sense gratification. For this reason, God has recommended that we simply chant His name in a loving way, and that such service will be sufficient to return back home, back to Godhead, after this life.
This is not to say that one method is superior to another, but each method is more effective in a particular Yuga due to the qualities of the people at the time. This brings up another justification for the existence of different religious systems. Not only does time play a factor, but circumstance as well. The difference between the material world and the spiritual world is that every living entity in the material world possesses gunas, or qualities. Not only do they possess qualities, but they are forced to perform some work, or karma. Since every living entity has different qualities and performs different work, we see the existence of up to 8,400,000 varieties of species. Religion is only meant for the human beings. Animals don’t have the mental capacity to understand God. This is why taking birth as a human is considered a tremendous opportunity for the spirit soul.
Even amongst humans, there are varying degrees of intelligence based on the three modes of material nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance. The pious and learned live in the mode of goodness, those seeking after material sense gratification are in the mode of passion, and those who are completely ignorant, always intoxicated and sleeping, they are in the mode of ignorance. God is so kind that He has provided different religious systems for each of the different modes. For example, meat eating is explicitly prohibited for those in the mode of goodness. Since human life is meant for the cultivation of spiritual knowledge, one should live as simple a life as possible. This requires regulation in sleeping and eating. Simple vegetarian food comprised of grains, milk, ghee, and yogurt is sufficient to meet the dietary demands of the body. Meat eating is bad for one’s karma since it involves unnecessarily killing innocent animals simply to satisfy the demands of the tongue and stomach. Karma is the ultimate system of fairness, so if we live off innocently killing other living entities, we will surely be forced to suffer the same fate in the future.
Even though meat eating is prohibited, we see that the Vedas sanction and even recommend various animal sacrifices. On the surface, this may seem like a contradiction, but it isn’t. Animal sacrifice is recommended for those in the mode of ignorance. The Kali Puja is a famous animal sacrifice still practiced to this day. Once a month, a goat can be sacrificed to Goddess Kali. The idea is not to promote animal killing, but to give those in the mode of ignorance a taste of religion. The hope is that by going to so much trouble simply to eat meat, one will gradually rise to the stage where they give up meat eating entirely.
In a similar manner, there are various yajnas, or sacrifices, recommended for those in the mode of passion. As part of the karma kanda division of the Vedas, the performance of these yajnas guarantees good fortune and wealth to those in the householder stage of life, grihastha ashrama. These processes are recommended so that people can understand that God is responsible for all of their good fortune. The hope is that gradually one will realize that these temporary fruits are not needed, since one can only be truly happy by serving Krishna, or God.
So which religious system should we follow? The point of any religion is to allow people to reach the point where they know and love God. Which route we take is up to us. We can follow the prescribed rituals and regulations, which represent a staircase to the final platform, or we can take an elevator, leading us directly to the path of loving service to God. The elevator is the process of devotional service, also known as bhakti yoga or bhagavata-dharma. Devotional service is the yoga process where we dovetail all of our activities with service to God. This service must be performed with love and devotion, without any expectation of material rewards. This is the highest religion.
So the only real difference between the various religious systems is just how quickly one can attain love of Godhead. Since the Vedas are the original religion, they actually don’t contradict the statements of any other religion. This may be hard to believe, but one does not have to give up being a Jew, Christian, or Muslim in order to serve Krishna. There is no official “conversion process” to become a devotee of Krishna; one need only be sincere. God is one and He is for everyone. The primary teaching of the Vedas is to love God.
“The highest form of religion is that by which one becomes fully conscious of the existence of God, His form, name, qualities, pastimes, abode and all-pervasive features.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 19.146 Purport)
For this age, the primary Vedic injunction is that people should refrain from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, illicit sex, gambling, and intoxication, and at the same time, regularly chant the Lord’s names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. These principles can be practiced by people of all faiths, for they don’t violate the edicts of any religion. There may be specific recommendations and rituals prescribed by various religions around the world, but they are all meant to elevate one to the platform of love of God. Abstaining from the four pillars of sinful life elevates us to the mode of goodness, which is a stepping stone to the platform of suddha-sattva, or pure goodness. This is the end goal. Simply being a vegetarian is not enough. If we are still hankering after illusory sense gratification, thinking of ourselves as God, then we will be forced to repeat the cycle of birth and death. God is only fair. If we want to stay in this material world, He will not stand in our way.
If we have any interest in religion at all, we should sincerely take up this process of devotional service. It begins by chanting, but the general idea is to always stay connected with God. Just as we are happiest when we get to spend time with our friends and family, our souls will be similarly benefitted if we spend time with Krishna. Luckily for us, there are so many ways to connect with Him. We can read stories about Him, chant His name, visit His temples, talk to His devotees, etc. The possibilities are endless. If we happen to belong to a different faith, our service to Krishna will not go in vain. Bhagavata-dharma is for everyone and it makes people even better Christians, Jews, and Muslims. There is no harm in connecting with Krishna. He is all-attractive and very kind. He is the ocean of mercy and friend of the fallen.
Categories: devotional service