There are four things that are guaranteed in material life: birth, old age, disease and death (janma, jara, vyadhi, mrtyu). The first event, birth, represents a new beginning, a great opportunity for the spirit soul to cultivate spiritual knowledge and use that understanding to reconnect with God. Yet as soon as the spirit soul comes into contact with material nature, it associates with qualities known as gunas. These qualities manifest themselves in the form of a gross material body. As soon as there is birth, the other three miseries begin to take effect on the body. However strong we may think we are, we all eventually succumb to the forces of old age, disease, and ultimately death.
Some think of death as the end, while others speculate that it might be the beginning. In reality, it is an event that merely signals the changing of bodies. We get up every morning, take a shower, and then put on a fresh set of clothes. We never think of wearing the same outfit two days in a row, since yesterday’s clothes are probably dirty from us having worn them. Instead, we reach for a fresh pair, something nice and comfortable that will make us feel good. In the same way, death represents the changing of clothes, the shedding of an old and useless body in exchange for a brand new one.
“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)
Old age represents the effects of time. Nothing can check time; it is a force of nature that is beyond the realm of our thinking. It is inconceivable and it is constantly taking effect. As soon as we take birth, we start the dying process. Little by little, every day we creep closer to that time when our soul will have to give up the current body and accept a new one. Aging goes hand-in-hand with dying. In our youth, our body may grow into its adult form, but at around the age of twenty, the growth stops and decay begins. In a matter of a few short years, the aging process takes effect and our face acquires new wrinkles. We can’t run as fast as we used to. Our metabolism slows down and our stamina is not nearly the same as it was in our younger days. This is all due to the aging process.
Along with old age, disease also speeds up the dying process. There are so many diseases out there, that one can’t even count them all. There’s always a new epidemic popping up, something to scare people enough into taking extreme preventative measures. The swine flu is the latest scare. Government leaders are strongly urging people to get vaccinated from the swine flu, fearing an epidemic. In reality, there is little that can be done to stop disease.
In one sense, the miseries of old age and disease are actually gifts from God. The material world exists to facilitate the desire of the spirit souls to enjoy material sense gratification. In order to keep that enjoyment going at a heightened level, God allows us to shed our decayed bodies and accept brand new ones. He is so kind that He allows us to forget the experiences of our past lives every time we take birth.
“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!” (Bg., 4.5)
This loss of memory is for our benefit. If we had the body of an infant, but had the knowledge of a wise man, life would surely be painful. Children love to play and have fun all day, while older people like to relax since they have experienced all of life’s thrills already. By allowing us to forget our past lives, God gives us the opportunity to falsely enjoy material life again and again.
“Just as a strong-pillared house ultimately wears out and decays, so a human being must succumb to old age and death.” (Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 105)
Knowledge means power. If we recognize that these fourfold miseries of life are guaranteed, we can hopefully use that knowledge to put an end to our suffering. This was the lesson taught by Lord Rama, an incarnation of God, many thousands of years ago. In the above referenced statement, He is telling His younger brother Bharata that all things in this material world are temporary. Even the strongest pillar must face decrepitude and decay, so what to speak of our temporary material bodies? The situation at hand was that Bharata desperately wanted Rama to return to the kingdom of Ayodhya. The king at the time, Maharaja Dashratha, had passed away due to the pain of separation from Rama, his eldest son. Ordered to live in the forest for fourteen years by Dashratha, Rama wasn’t about to renege on His promise to His father.
Bharata was chosen as the successor to the throne prior to Dashratha’s death. Bharata, however, wanted Rama to rule over Ayodhya since He was the eldest son. He sought Rama out in the forest and begged Him to return. As part of his plea, Bharata argued that Ayodhya would be enveloped in sadness if anyone else were to rule as king. Rama’s retort was that all material things are temporary and that one should not worry about fleeting happiness or sadness.
What should we worry about then? The Vedas tell us that this human form of life is meant for God realization. We possess a high brain power because God ultimately wants us to return to His abode, the eternal spiritual realm. Residence on His planets is permanent, while life here doesn’t have to be. In order to return back to God, we have to follow the principles of dharma, or religiosity. Religion exists to allow man to know and love God. The perfect religion is that which can raise people from animalistic tendencies to a platform of pure love and devotion to the Supreme Lord.
Dharma sets out to do just that. In His incarnation as Lord Rama, Lord Krishna played the role of a pious prince who was dedicated strictly to dharma, and more importantly, to the welfare of His devotees. Dharma is our occupational duty and is not just a blind faith. In order for something to be considered dharma, it cannot change. Someone may change their specific religious faith on a whim, but dharma can never change. The eternal occupation of man, bhagavata-dharma, is to become Krishna conscious. Simply following rules and regulations is useless unless one comes to an understanding of God and the constitutional position of the spirit soul.
“The Absolute Truth is the objective of devotional sacrifice, and it is indicated by the word sat. These works of sacrifice, of penance and of charity, true to the absolute nature, are performed to please the Supreme Person, O son of Pritha. But sacrifices, austerities and charities performed without faith in the Supreme are nonpermanent, O son of Pritha, regardless of whatever rites are performed. They are called asat and are useless both in this life and the next.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 17.27-28)
The lesson here is that we should not be attached to temporary material happiness. Lord Rama renounced everything for the sake of His father. Everything He did was for the benefit of His devotees. We should return the favor by offering our actions as a sacrifice to the Supreme Lord. Practicing devotional service means always connecting with Bhagavan, or God. God transcends the effects of birth, old age, disease, and death, and so do His devotees.