“That thing which falls to my lot on the destruction of friends and adherents, I never accept, even like food mixed with poison.” (Lord Rama speaking to Lakshmana, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 97)
Lord Rama, God Himself, here definitively declares that He rejects any offering made to Him that comes at the expense of His devotees. God must be worshiped in the mode of goodness, sattva-guna. Worshiping God in any other way is not sanctioned by the shastras.
According to Vedic philosophy, the material world is governed by three qualities, known as gunas. These qualities manifest as the modes of goodness, passion, and ignorance. Every conditioned living entity possesses a combination of these qualities. Just as an expert chemist can concoct various combinations of chemicals to create a multitude of compounds, material nature gives the jiva soul up to 8,400,000 varieties of species to take birth in depending on the precise combination possessed of the three mode of nature. By saying that someone possesses a particular quality of nature, it means that they perform activities in that particular mode. For example, people who possess the mode of goodness perform acts that are in knowledge, i.e. in line with the injunctions of the scriptures. Activities performed for the purpose of cultivating spiritual knowledge constitute the mode of goodness.
“The Blessed Lord said: Fearlessness, purification of one’s existence, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, charity, self-control, performance of sacrifice, study of the Vedas, austerity and simplicity; nonviolence, truthfulness, freedom from anger; renunciation, tranquility, aversion to faultfinding, compassion and freedom from covetousness; gentleness, modesty and steady determination; vigor, forgiveness, fortitude, cleanliness, freedom from envy and the passion for honor—these transcendental qualities, O son of Bharata, belong to godly men endowed with divine nature.” (Bhagavad-gita, 16.1-3)
The mode of passion includes any fruitive activity, meaning anything we do for our own personal benefit. This makes up the majority of the work that most of us perform. Going to school, working hard at the office, eating food that we like, and playing sports are all part of the mode of passion. The mode of ignorance, or darkness, is any activity performed that is lacking in goodness or passion. Sleeping unnecessarily, eating too much, being intoxicated all the time; these are all in the mode of ignorance.
Just as all our activities can be classified into one of these three modes, so can every religious function we perform. Being religious can have many different meanings depending on who you talk to, but in the Vedic definition, the quintessential religious act is the sacrifice, or yajna. The reason religious activities are classified as sacrifices is that, by nature, we are all accustomed to act for our own self interest. This is the definition of karma. We perform an action which then has a commensurate reaction, either good or bad. If we perform pious activities, good things will happen to us, and if we are sinful, then the reverse is true. The Vedas refer to religion as sanatana dharma, meaning the eternal occupation of man. Our business is to know God, and then to use that knowledge to serve Him. So in essence, religion is the antithesis of fruitive activity or karma. Religiosity is meant to serve as a sacrifice of material activity. Each step we take closer to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, we take one step away from the clutches of maya. This is why the highest perfectional stage in life is the sannyasa ashrama, the renounced order of life. This is the last of the four ashramas, where one lives a completely renounced life, depending on Krishna for everything.
“Of sacrifices, that sacrifice performed according to duty and to scriptural rules, and with no expectation of reward, is of the nature of goodness.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 17.11)
Yajna, or sacrifice, is very important, but not all yajnas are the same. They also can be classified into the different modes of nature. The main point to understand is that Lord Krishna can only be worshiped in the mode of goodness. There is only one God even though He has many different expansions, forms, and names. Krishna is the original form, with Lord Vishnu being His primary expansion. For governance of the material world, the Lord expands Himself into the three guna-avataras: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Lord Brahma is the avatara for people in the mode of passion, Lord Shiva for those in the mode of ignorance, and Lord Vishnu for those in the mode of goodness. Lord Vishnu is considered superior since He is a direct expansion of Krishna and thus in the mode of goodness.
“According to the philosophy of achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, Lord Shiva is not different from Lord Vishnu, but still Lord Shiva is not Lord Vishnu, just as yogurt is nothing but milk and yet is not milk nevertheless. One cannot get the benefit of milk by drinking yogurt. Similarly, one cannot get salvation by worshiping Lord Shiva. If one wants salvation, one must worship Lord Vishnu.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 17.100)
Aside from Lord Shiva and Brahma, there are many other chief deputies, known as the demigods. They are sort of the Cabinet or government officers who have been invested with various responsibilities by Krishna.
“Men of small intelligence worship the demigods, and their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but My devotees ultimately reach My supreme planet.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.23)
Generally speaking, those who are less intelligent worship the demigods. For example, the great demons Ravana and Hiranyakashipu both performed great austerities in order to please the demigods. They performed these austerities not out of any love or concern for the demigods, but only to receive material boons. That is why demigod worshipers are generally considered unintelligent. Religion is meant to be performed out of pure love for God, and not for any material benefit. Realizing this can take time, so one is given a chance to gradually progress in spiritual life by performing sacrifices for various demigods and by performing other fruitive religious activities. Nevertheless, the great demons of the past never worshiped Lord Krishna or Lord Vishnu because their prayers for material boons would have gone unanswered.
There was a famous incident with the great Narada Muni that illustrates how worship of Lord Vishnu works. A pure devotee of the Lord, Narada travels the three worlds providing spiritual guidance to one and all. He lives the life of a perfect sannyasi, which requires having no connection with women. On one occasion, however, he felt victim to amorous love and desperately wanted to get married to a certain princess. She had a svayamvara ceremony, where she got to choose who she would marry. Narada Muni prayed to Lord Vishnu to ensure that the girl would pick him. The Lord used some word jugglery to trick Narada into thinking that his prayers would be answered, when in reality, the Lord agreed to do what was best for Narada. When the time came to choose, the girl looked at Narada Muni and saw the face of a bear. She immediately eliminated him from the candidacy.
This is the Lord’s mercy to His devotees. If a devotee prays for a material reward, and the Lord decides that it is in the best interest of the devotee, He will happily oblige. He is never required to answer prayers made for a personal benefit. Demigods on the other hand, must reward their devotees, regardless of the motives. Ravana and Hiranyakashipu both had ill motives, for they were great enemies to the sages of the world. Regardless, the demigods had to provide them what they wanted.
In the above referenced statement, Lord Rama is declaring that He never accepts anything offered to Him if it comes at the expense of His devotees. In today’s world, we see many deplorable acts committed in the name of religion. Terrorism, cow slaughter, and even abortion are either sanctioned or not protested by many of the world’s religious leaders. Based on Lord Rama’s statement, we can understand that these religions, as they are espoused today, cannot be considered bona fide.
Religion means to know and love God. Any religious system which aims to achieve this end can be considered bona fide, and any other system must be considered bogus. The proper way to follow religious principles is through the execution of devotional service, also known as bhakti yoga. Bhakti means love and yoga means linking one’s soul with God. We living entities are spirit souls who are part and parcel of God, but God is the Supreme Soul who is so great that He can easily expand Himself as the Supersoul residing in the hearts of every living entity. Devotional service means dedicating all our actions to God. The Vedas describe the Lord atmarama, meaning one who is self-satisfied. That being the case, how can we make someone who is in need of nothing, happy?
God is generally neutral towards all living entities, but He makes an exception for His devotees. His love for His devotees cannot be put into words. Just by judging the actions He performed during His various incarnations, we get a slight glimpse into just how great that love is. Lord Rama’s activities were all performed for the benefit of His friends, family, and dependents. In fact, the above referenced statement was made to pacify Lakshmana, who had become angry upon seeing Bharata approaching their camp. Lord Rama was Krishna Himself in the guise of a kshatriya prince. He, His wife Sita Devi, and younger brother Lakshmana, were serving out an exile term in the forest when Rama and Lakshmana’s brother, Bharata, came to see them. Bharata wanted Rama to come back to the kingdom of Ayodhya and ascend the throne, but Lakshmana was unaware of this, so he was initially suspicious. In order to quell Lakshmana’s anger, Rama informed him that there was no need to be violent against Bharata. The Lord never wants to gain something, in this case the kingdom, at the expense of His devotees. Bharata was just as devoted to Rama as Lakshmana was.
Since God isn’t always physically present before us, the best way to perform devotional service is to serve His devotees. The bona fide spiritual master, the guru, is the true representative of Krishna. Surrendering everything unto the Lord, the spiritual master humbly asks others to become Krishna conscious, for he knows that this will make Krishna happy. Pure devotees return to one of Krishna’s spiritual planets at the time of death, so the spiritual master tries to turn as many people into devotees as possible because it will mean that Krishna will be able to reclaim so many lost souls.
To act in concert with God’s interests, we simply have to pass on the teachings of the great acharyas. Vyasadeva, Goswami Tulsidas, Shrila Rupa Goswami, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and other great Vaishnava saints have all passed on volumes and volumes of written instruction on the science of devotional service. To serve them, we simply have to induce others to follow their teachings. Love Krishna, chant His holy names, and be happy.
Krishna has declared many times that pleasing His servant means pleasing Him. Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s most recent incarnation, taught us to think of ourselves as the servant of the servant of God. This is the proper method of worship. We actually cannot approach God directly in the beginning stages. The spiritual master is the via-medium. If we please the devotees, God will be happy with us and accept our offerings.