“Whatever is piled up, finally disburses. Whatever rises, must eventually fall. Those that come together, separate in the end. Life eventually meets with death.” (Lord Rama speaking to Bharata, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 105)
This instruction given by Lord Rama, God Himself, to His brother is almost identical to that given by Lord Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Everything in this life is temporary, even if we fail to realize it. Whatever one gains, they are sure to lose, with the ultimate loss being one’s life at the time of death. One must not become bewildered by the temporary nature of things.
Immediately upon taking birth, a cloud of ignorance envelops the newborn child. We have information from the Shrimad Bhagavatam that the child in the womb has consciousness of its previous lives. The child promises to remember God in this life and to make sure that they never take birth again. Yet immediately after coming out of the womb of the mother, that experience is forgotten. Not only do we forget the nine months we spent in the womb, but we also forget the experiences of our many past lives.
“The Blessed Lord said: Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot, O subduer of the enemy!” (Bhagavad-gita, 4.5)
This forgetfulness is all due to Lord Krishna’s illusory energy known as maya. This isn’t God’s fault, for we want to falsely enjoy in the material world. Maya facilitates our desire. For this reason a newborn child is completely uneducated in spiritual matters, and in actions is no different than an animal. This ignorance then leads to the false identification with the body. This line of thinking continues into adulthood if no spiritual education is given. Since this is the age of quarrel and hypocrisy, the Kali Yuga, most everyone is living their lives under this false pretense. “I am Indian, I am American, I am black, I am white, etc.” In actuality, we are spirit souls, aham brahmasmi. Our body is but a temporary material covering consisting of bile, mucus, air, blood, puss, etc. It is constantly changing, but this change is so subtle that we don’t realize it. Still, we can understand that the body we have as an adult is completely different from the body we had as a child. Our identity has remained the same throughout, so one must conclude that we are not this body. Then what are we? Our identity comes from the atma, or the soul residing within our body. The soul cannot be seen with the naked eye or with fancy scientific instruments. It is similar to the wind in that regard. Yet through the event known as death, we can come to know of its existence. For example, we may have an attachment for a parent or other loved one. At the time of their death, the body remains in front of us, yet we still lament. “Oh my father has died. I am so sad.” But why are we sad? The body still lays in front of us. The reason we lament is because the individual, represented by the soul, has departed the body.
“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain…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, Bg. 2.20, 2.22)
No sane person can say the gross material body represents our identity. Nevertheless, this is precisely the mode of thinking of many people. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, instruct us to break free of this false logic. In fact the very first instruction of the Vedas is that we are not this body. This simple fact represents the beginning of spiritual instruction, not the end. The end is Krishna, or God. As the saying goes, Ram nam satya hey, “the name of Rama (God) is the truth”. The Supreme Absolute Truth represents the final piece of knowledge.
Aside from the event of death, there are many other ways that God shows us the temporary nature of things. Not only is this body temporary, but everything in this material creation as well. This includes any wealth or possessions accumulated during our lifetime. Great emperors of the past all thought they were immortal and that their reign would never end. Yet not only did they all die, but their empires all vanished as well. In a similar manner, all the great dynasties and empires of today will one day dissolve. Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, believed such events were a good thing.
"The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere." (Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 1787)
Not only the power of government, but every person’s power and feeling of false proprietorship needs to checked. Aside from falsely identifying with the body, the other major problem facing the living entities is their desire to lord over material nature. God is one and He is supreme. Yet by taking birth in this material world, by nature we come to believe that we are God in a sense. “I will perform such and such work and then acquire rewards for it. I will make such and such plans and then I will be happy.” This is the mindset of all living entities. Yet material nature, through the laws of karma, always checks our plans. No matter how hard we may try, something is bound to thwart us. No one can be infallible except God, whose many names include Achyuta, meaning one who is infallible.
It is common to see people be envious of someone else who is successful materially, thinking that everything goes right for them. This is especially seen in the world of sports. The perennially successful teams are the ones hated the most. In Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees are one of the most hated teams. There are thousands of fans who watch Yankee games simply to root for them to lose. The Yankees are one of the oldest teams in baseball, having a rich historical tradition. They have won the most championships and they have the highest annual payroll amongst all teams. This is the primary reason for the hatred directed their way. In the late 1990s, the Yankees had won three World Series in a row, and four out of five going into the 2001 playoffs. Fighting their way through tough teams, the Yankees made it back to the World Series where they faced an upstart Arizona Diamondbacks team. After two miracle ninth inning rallies in games 4 and 5, the Yankees took a 3 games to 2 lead going back to Arizona. Arizona fought their way back to force a decisive game 7. Facing a tough pitcher, the Yankees somehow clawed their way into the lead going into the ninth and final inning. Once again, it seemed like the Yankees could do no wrong. They brought in their ace closer, Mariano Rivera, to pitch the ninth inning. Rivera was pretty much unhittable as a pitcher, especially during the postseason. But the laws of nature took over, and the Diamondbacks did the unthinkable by coming back and scoring two runs off Rivera to win one of the most memorable World Series in history.
So however invincible we may think someone is, everyone is destined to fail at some point. Even the most successful people face defeat every now and then. The ultimate equalizer is death since we can’t take our trophies, material possessions, or family relationships with us to the afterlife. Even God personally showed us this example during His different advents on earth. Lord Rama was forced to separate from His dearly beloved brother Lakshmana, His father Dashratha, and even His wife Sita Devi. Lord Krishna similarly had to depart for the spiritual world, leaving the Vrishnis behind. Obviously God can never be killed, nor is His body material like ours. Nevertheless, He gives us that illusion so as to teach us a lesson. God sets up events just right to make it appear that karma affects Him, but one should never think that it actually does.
“There is no work that affects Me; nor do I aspire for the fruits of action. One who understands this truth about Me also does not become entangled in the fruitive reactions of work.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.14)
Knowing the temporary nature of this world is one thing, but how should we act on such knowledge? The answer can be taken from Lord Rama’s example. The above referenced statement was made to His brother Bharata while the entire family was staying in the forest. Lord Rama had been exiled from the kingdom at the request of His father King Dashratha, who had since passed away. Bharata, being a younger brother, thought it improper to ascend the throne as Dashratha had wished. Bharata immediately set out to look for Rama in the forest and to beg Him to come back and rule over the kingdom. Rama’s point to Bharata was that everything in this life is temporary, so we shouldn’t be overly attached to good or bad results. The events of our life will play out, but we should never swerve from the path of dharma, or religiosity.
The Vedas declare many different dharmas, or types of religion, but only one is completely free of material effects, and that is bhagavata-dharma. God is known as Bhagavan, so the religious system that aims to connect with Him is known as bhagavata-dharma, also known as devotional service. If we shift our priorities in such a way that we do everything for God’s benefit, we become immune to the effects of karma. The detachment we so desperately seek comes of its own volition. Just knowing that everything in life is temporary is not enough. It is much easier said than done to actually become detached from mundane sense gratification and the desire to lord over material nature. Devotional service helps us foster attachment to God, which will then automatically give us detachment from everything else. This was the example set by Lord Rama. He did everything for the benefit of His devotees, so we should be kind enough to return the favor.