The Sublime Engagement

Lord Krishna “Duties [dharma] executed by men, regardless of occupation, are only so much useless labor if they do not provoke attraction for the message of the Supreme Lord.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.2.8)

Just as our ordinary material endeavors can bear fruits when executed properly, the performance of religious or pious acts can also lead to the acquisition of material benefits. Religious life is not all about punishing oneself for no reason. In the Vedic tradition, there are many different levels of religion, and on the material level, one can acquire great religious merit through the performance of sacrifices. Yet in the end, these material rewards, along with everything else in this creation, are only temporary. Therefore the aim of life should be to find a higher engagement which transcends the temporary nature of things.

Radha Krishna Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, has been so kind to us that He gave us not only one system of religion, but many varieties consisting of sub-religions in a sense. The analogy to dictionaries is appropriate in this regard. One may purchase a very large dictionary which is complete with definitions of all the words of a particular language, or one may buy a pocket dictionary; something compact which serves as a handy reference. Though both dictionaries contain vital information, the larger dictionary is superior due to its completeness. In a similar manner, Krishna originally passed down the Veda to Lord Brahma, the first created living entity. Veda means knowledge, so what was imparted into Lord Brahma’s heart was the essential knowledge required for all of mankind. As time went on, the Veda then became divided into different sections and henceforth became known as the Vedas. With the onset of the Kali Yuga, the age we currently live in, many new religions came about, each tailored for the specific time and circumstances of society. The Vedas tell us that the first stage of religious life begins when one seeks out the three rewards of material life: dharma, artha, and kama. Dharma is religiosity, artha is economic development, and kama is sense gratification. These things go hand in hand. One acts religiously in order that they may procure enough money to enjoy sense gratification at a satisfactory level.

For those who strive for these material rewards, dharma takes a specific shape. As mentioned before, there are different sections of the Vedas, with one of them being the karma-kanda section. Karma is fruitive activity or work performed for a desired result. Karma also means that work which automatically has an associated material reaction. Just because we work hard for something, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t side effects. For example, we may work very hard to earn a nice living, but if we engage in sinful activity, we are bound to suffer the results. Lying, cheating, stealing, illicit connection with women, and so many other sinful activities go on all the time. In a similar manner, pious activities also take place. Engaging in this sort of life means that each one of our actions has a commensurate reaction, either good or bad.

Satyanarayana Katha The karma-kanda section of the Vedas delineates specific sacrifices and religious functions that one can perform for the procurement of material rewards. For example, if one wants to ascend to the heavenly planets in the afterlife, they can engage in worshiping various demigods, or they can perform specific pujas and other sacrifices. Those in the householder stage of life, the grihastha ashrama, are urged to perform many such sacrifices for the benefit of their family. Today one of the most common pujas performed by the householders of the Hindu tradition is the Satyanarayana Katha. Usually performed once a month, this puja grants a husband and wife the boons of a prosperous family life and good health.

In the classic Vedic system, such sacrifices are usually only performed by brahmanas. The priestly class of men, the brahmanas, have specific occupations they are allowed to take up. Yajana and yājana, the performance of sacrifices and the teaching of the performance of sacrifices to others are two of the main businesses of a brahmana. The definition of a brahmana is one who knows Brahman, the impersonal energy of God. Lord Krishna is the original form of God and He can be realized in three distinct ways. His first feature is that of Bhagavan, meaning one who possesses all fortunes. Bhagavan then expands Himself into the heart of every living entity. This expansion is known as the Supersoul, or Paramatma. The Paramatma then further expands into Brahman, which is the impersonal effulgence from which everything in the universe emanates.

“Although the Supersoul appears to be divided, He is never divided. He is situated as one. Although He is the maintainer of every living entity, it is to be understood that He devours and develops all. He is the source of light in all luminous objects. He is beyond the darkness of matter and is unmanifested. He is knowledge, He is the object of knowledge, and He is the goal of knowledge. He is situated in everyone’s heart.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 13.17-18)

Maharishi Valmiki Brahman is the source of all things material and spiritual, thus one who knows Brahman knows how the universe operates. Brahmanas also engage in studying the Vedas and teaching Vedic knowledge to others. During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, many brahmanas took to living in the forest, since the peaceful surroundings were more conducive to the performance of sacrifices. At the same time, the Rakshasa class was ascending to power. Living entities can take many forms based on their material qualities and their karma. There are up to 8,400,000 varieties of species. Rakshasas are demons by nature who live off eating flesh. In the human race, meat eaters only eat the flesh of certain animals, but Rakshasas are so vile that they feast on human flesh as well. Aside from engaging in meat eating and intoxication, the most notable trait of Rakshasas is that they are devout atheists. Not to be confused with people who may be unaware of religion, Rakshasas are staunch believers in material life, taking their bodies to be the beginning and end of everything. Since they believe so strongly in adharma, or irreligion, they view the brahmanas, the saintly class of men, as their biggest threat.

“By the powers gained through our performance of religious austerities, we are certainly capable of killing these Rakshasa demons. But at the same time we don’t want to waste our ascetic merits, which took such a long time to achieve, on these demons. Oh Raghava (Rama), these demons are always putting obstacles in the way, making it impossible for us to concentrate on our performance of austerity and penance. Thus we sages are being eaten away by the Rakshasas before we can even issue a curse on them.” (Sages of Dandaka forest speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 10.13-14)

Lord Rama Feeling threatened by the brahmanas living in the forests, the Rakshasas took to harassing them. They would regularly disrupt the sacrifices of the sages, killing them and then feasting off their flesh. The brahmanas weren’t completely helpless though. All Vedic rituals revolve around sound vibrations; the recitation of sacred hymns and mantras. A brahmana is expert in reciting these mantras. The sages of the forests easily could have cast various spells and curses on the Rakshasas using these mantras. Yet from the above referenced quote, we can see that the brahmanas were hesitant to use these spells because it would mean that they would lose their accumulated religious merits.

This is a key point to understand. Karma-kanda activities certainly bestow rewards, but they are temporary. In essence, the rewards have an expiration date on them. Even those acting completely in the mode of goodness, sattva-guna, are not guaranteed of eternal spiritual life. If one acts piously in this life, they ascend to a heavenly planet in the material world. But residence there is no permanent, and at the expiry of their accumulated merits, they fall back down to earth.

“Those who study the Vedas and drink the soma juice, seeking the heavenly planets, worship Me indirectly. They take birth on the planet of Indra, where they enjoy godly delights. When they have thus enjoyed heavenly sense pleasure, they return to this mortal planet again. Thus, through the Vedic principles, they achieve only flickering happiness.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.20-21)

If a brahmana, or anyone else, acts on the material platform and acquires religious merits, those merits eventually expire. Sometimes the boons come immediately, while other times they bear fruit way into the future, maybe even in another life. Regardless of when they are received, all such rewards are only temporary. There’s a catch that goes along with this. If one acts impiously, then their accumulated religious merits diminish. It’s similar to the concept of a see-saw, with a person’s accumulated merits and demerits on opposite sides. This was the fact referenced by the brahmanas when speaking to Lord Rama. A brahmana is supposed to be non-violent. Casting a curse on someone is not considered a good thing, especially for a brahmana who is supposed to be very tolerant. If one does cast a curse, their religious merits diminish.

The brahmanas didn’t want all their hard work to go to waste, so they petitioned Lord Rama to help them. At the time, Lord Krishna had incarnated on earth in human form as Lord Rama specifically to kill the Rakshasas and to protect His devotees.

“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion-at that time I descend Myself.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.7)

Lord Rama and His pastimes Lord Rama didn’t advent just to protect ordinary brahmanas. There is a difference between a brahmana and a Vaishnava, or devotee of Lord Vishnu or Krishna. These brahmanas that approached Lord Rama were all Vaishnavas, and their austerities were being disturbed. It was for this reason that Rama agreed to help them. Devotional service, or bhagavata-dharma, is the eternal occupation of man. The Vedas refer to religion as sanatana-dharma, which, in its purified form, really means bhagavata-dharma. There are nine distinct process of devotional service, and the performance of any one of them gives rewards that far exceed any of those given by the performance of karma-kanda. Bhagvata-dharma is also referred to as bhakti yoga, the linking of the soul with God in love. We have experience that it can take a while to garner love for someone else, while other times it can happen instantly. Bhakti yoga is so nice because it can deliver love at first sight to those who engage in it. Unlike material rewards that have a shelf-life, love for God lasts forever. It can never be diminished or checked.

Lord Rama’s protection of the sages was proof of this fact. The Rakshasas tried to disrupt the loving service offered by the brahmanas. Yet in the end, God personally came to save the sages. Lord Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana would end up killing many Rakshasas, including their leader Ravana. God protects those who take up the sublime engagement of devotional service. That is His promise to us.

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