“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.16)
Groundhog Day is the holiday celebrated in America each year on the 2nd of February. Though not a major holiday by any means, the day is noteworthy for its relationship with winter. Groundhog Day is so named because every year in the city Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, comes out of his burrow while throngs of people look on. Legend has it that if the groundhog sees his shadow, winter will continue for an additional six weeks. If he doesn’t see his shadow, winter will likely be cut short.
The Groundhog Day celebration is so popular in Pennsylvania that Hollywood actually made a movie about it titled Groundhog Day. The movie stars comedian Bill Murray, whose character in the film, Phil Connors, is a weatherman for a Pittsburgh television station. He, along with two coworkers, go to cover the Groundhog Day event one year in Punxsutawney. Phil, the weatherman, is not too excited about covering the event, for he doesn’t see the need to travel so far and stand outside in the cold in the wee hours of the morning, waiting for the groundhog to come out. The movie gets interesting when Phil realizes that he is stuck in time, forced to repeat Groundhog Day over and over again. No matter what he does, every day he wakes up is the same. The same song plays on the radio, the same people walk along the same path in the streets, and it is always February 2nd, Groundhog Day. Everyone in the town is excited to the see groundhog, and no one has any recollection of the previous days which Phil has experienced.
Not knowing what to do, Phil decides to try to use his predicament to his advantage. Knowing that the next day will be the same no matter what, why not try to enjoy each day as much possible? One day Phil decides to eat as much junk food as he wants to. He goes to a diner and stuffs himself on doughnuts and other pastries. After a few days of trying this, Phil moves on to trying to seduce women. He makes note of certain women and gathers facts relating to their lives on certain days, only to then use that information in his pick up routine on subsequent days. He manages to successfully seduce women, but even that isn’t enough. After a while, his attempts at sense gratification fail to bring him any happiness. Phil then feels bewildered. He wants a way out of this repetitive cycle, but doesn’t know what to do. Next he tries suicide. He tries to kill himself in all sorts of ways, but nothing works. No matter what happens, he still wakes up every day to Groundhog Day.
To properly convey the relation of this movie with Vedic teachings, we must give away the ending. Phil’s producer, Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, is there alongside him every day covering the Groundhog event. While seeking out Rita’s help in regards to his precarious predicament, Phil develops romantic feelings for her, but is unable to seduce her. He tries everything, from quoting French poetry, to talking about his love for children, and nothing seems to work. In the end, Phil learns to love Rita without any motive. He enjoys her company so much that he loses his desire for liberation from the cycle of repeated Groundhog Days. Instead, he just wishes to have Rita’s association and to love her with all his heart. His loving attachment for her makes him a better person overall. He turns into a good-natured person and befriends everyone in the town. Due to his love for Rita, he becomes a completely different person than the original crotchety weatherman who dreaded covering Groundhog Day. As a reward for his unalloyed devotion to the object of his affection, Phil is finally released from the cycle of repeated days. He wakes up one morning lying next to Rita, and it is February 3rd, the day after Groundhog Day.
Phil’s Groundhog Day is actually a microcosm of the experience our souls go through. The Vedas tell us that our identity comes from the presence of the soul in our body. When we refer to ourselves as “I”, we are actually referring to the soul and not the body. Our hands, legs, and even our property can be referred to as “Mine”, but we can’t take our identity from these things. “I” means aham brahmasmi, “I am a spirit soul, part and parcel of Brahman, God’s all-pervading expansive energy.” As spirit souls, we are pure in nature. Spirit is God’s superior energy, and matter is His inferior energy. This material world therefore represents God’s inferior energy. If we are superior in nature, how did we end up in the material world, where we associate with God’s inferior energy? Though we are equal to God in quality, we are different in quantity. God is the great soul, and we are His separated expansions. Since He is superior to us and since He creates matter, God can never directly associate with matter, or His inferior energy. We, on the other hand, have this flawed hankering to imitate God. Since there can only be one God, the Lord needed to create a playing field, an inferior place, for us spirit souls to come and act out our desires to be like Him.
The material world serves as the field for the material activities of the living entities. A living entity is a spirit soul which assumes a body composed of material elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false ego. God is very kind to us. Since we want to imitate Him, He allows us to come here and assume material bodies and act out our desires. We get to stay here as long as we want to, meaning our desires dictate our future fortunes and misfortunes. Since our material bodies suffer the effects of time and eventually wear out, God gives us new bodies to play in when our current ones cease to function.
“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)
This changing of bodies occurs at the time of death. Since the soul is eternal, it can never take birth, nor can it ever die. Our desires at the time of death, along with the work we performed during our lifetime, determine what type of body we will get in the next life. As long as there is some desire to remain in this material world and continue our imitation of God, we are forced to take birth again. So in essence, each life we live is in itself a Groundhog Day. The duration of our lives may be longer than one day, but our activities are more or less the same. We take birth, remain for some time, leave some byproducts, and then die. In our daily activities, we like to eat nice food, sleep on a comfortable mattress, have sex with beautiful men or women, and defend our property and wealth. In a sense, each day in our material life can be considered a Groundhog Day. If we spend one day pursuing sense gratification in one way, and spend other days pursuing the same sense gratification in other ways, there is actually no difference between the days.
“O best among the Bharatas [Arjuna], four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me—the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.16)
The Vedas tell us that human life is meant for inquiring about God. The famous Vedanta-sutras start off with the aphorism, athato brahma-jijnasa, meaning “Now is the time for inquiring about Brahman, or God.” Living entities don’t exclusively appear as human beings. Rather, there are up to 8,400,000 varieties of species, each tailored to specific qualities and desires. Human life is considered auspicious because human beings have the intelligence to realize their true identity and to also understand the repetitive nature of material life. One doesn’t have to be a Vedic scholar to realize that events in life repeat themselves. In general, most of society believes that success in life comes when you grow up to be self-sufficient and have enough wealth to maintain your bodily needs and wants. However, we see that the wealthy often don’t know what to do after they reach the top of their field. They realize that there is more to life than just material success, but they’re not sure what the “more” is. Even others who may not be wealthy also realize that death is guaranteed and that there must be a higher purpose for our being put on this earth. This search for higher knowledge often leads people to religion, and more importantly, to yoga.
Yoga today is commonly thought of to be a secular discipline consisting of various sitting postures and breathing exercises aimed at improving mental and physical health. While yoga certainly does provide these benefits, in its true definition, yoga means union of the soul with God. Since there are different ways to unite our soul with the Supreme Soul, the Paramatma, there are different yoga systems. Two of the more popular systems in the Vedic tradition are jnana yoga and hatha yoga. Jnana is the linking of the soul with God through analytical study of matter and spirit. The Vedas tell us that God can be realized in three primary features: Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan. By engaging in philosophical study through the jnana yoga process, one can realize Brahman, God’s impersonal effulgence. Everything is Brahman. All matter and spirit, and creation as a whole, comprise Brahman.
Hatha yoga is the yoga that most of the world is familiar with, except that in its original form, it includes a spiritual dimension. Sitting postures and breathing exercises are not intended to bring health benefits, but rather to help curb the effects of the senses. When the senses are kept in check, one can focus on God’s expansion as the Supersoul, Paramatma, residing in the heart. Every living entity consists of two souls: the jivatma, which forms the basis of our identity, and the Paramatma, God’s expansion as an impartial witness. Hatha yoga aims to unite the jivatma with the Paramatma.
Both jnana yoga and hatha yoga are bona fide ways to connect our soul with God, and thus they both can provide liberation. However, this liberation is not perfect, and in many ways, is similar to the suicide methods attempted by Phil Connors in the Groundhog Day movie. The reason for this is that jnana yoga results in the merging of our soul with Brahman. Brahman is an impersonal effulgence, and anyone who merges into this energy, which is also known as the brahmajyoti, immediately loses their identity. Since it is the nature of the spirit soul to be active, souls that merge into the brahmajyoti are prone to be released back into material life. We actually witness this phenomenon with many great Vedantists. They perfectly execute jnana yoga and renounce all activities, taking the whole world to be false and Brahman to be the only truth. However, once they reach this exalted position, they crave individuality. Thus they fall back down to the material level and take to acts of philanthropy. Hatha yoga has similar pitfalls. It results in the merging of the soul into the body of Lord Narayana, God’s four-handed form. It is actually Lord Narayana who resides within the heart as the Supersoul.
In the Groundhog Day movie, Phil Connors didn’t achieve success until he finally gave up his desire for liberation. It wasn’t until he developed a pure love for another living entity, Rita, and all his fellow man, that he was granted release. In a similar manner, we can’t achieve true liberation from the cycle of birth and death unless and until we develop a pure love for God in His personal form. As mentioned before, God can be realized in three distinct features, however, one of these features is superior to the others. God’s original form is that of Bhagavan, meaning the Supreme Personality of Godhead or one who possesses all fortunes. The Vedas tell us that the original Bhagavan is Lord Shri Krishna. Krishna also takes various personal expansions and incarnations classified as vishnu-tattva, which are also equivalent to Him. Real liberation can only come through worship of Bhagavan through the discipline known as bhakti yoga, or devotional service. Bhakti means love, so devotional service means serving God in a loving way, without any personal motive.
“Even though he is offered all kinds of liberation, the pure devotee does not accept them. He is fully satisfied engaging in the service of the Lord.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.29.13)
This is a key point. It is certainly a good thing to desire liberation in the beginning stages, for that is what is needed in order for us to turn our back on material life. However, in order to achieve perfection, we must eventually give up this desire for liberation and serve God in an unmotivated way. This pure love, Krishna prema, is not easy to achieve, but through steady practice of devotional service, we can be guaranteed of success.
“The unsuccessful yogi, after many, many years of enjoyment on the planets of the pious living entities, is born into a family of righteous people, or into a family of rich aristocracy. Or he takes his birth in a family of transcendentalists who are surely great in wisdom. Verily, such a birth is rare in this world. On taking such a birth, he again revives the divine consciousness of his previous life, and he tries to make further progress in order to achieve complete success, O son of Kuru.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 6.41-43)
The beauty of bhakti yoga is that there is no loss on our part. If we fail to achieve success in our current lifetime, in the next life, we get to continue from where we left off. So how does one practice devotional service? There are nine distinct processes, but the most effective method for this age is the constant chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Bhakti yoga is an eternal occupation. Unlike with the liberation offered by other types of yoga, bhakti yogis, or pure devotees of Krishna, get to personally associate with Him on one of His spiritual planets. Therefore individuality remains intact.
“My dear Lord, if You like You can give me salvation from this material existence, or the privilege of merging into Your existence, but I do not wish any of these things. I do not want anything which diminishes my relationship with You as master and servant, even after liberation.” (Lord Hanuman, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 4)
To achieve success, we simply have to follow the example of the great saints. Lord Hanuman is a perfect role model for everyone. A Vanara by birth, Hanuman got to personally associate with God in His form as Lord Rama many thousands of years ago. Rama was so pleased with his service that he granted Hanuman eternal devotion to Him. For Hanuman, meeting God was the beginning of his spiritual life. To this day, Hanuman spends all his time chanting Lord Rama’s glories and reading about His pastimes, not desiring liberation in any way. This is the beauty of having a loving relationship with God. Every day is a brand new day, filled with new opportunities for experiencing transcendental bliss.