“My dear beautiful wife, what you have said is befitting the occasion and also indicative of the greatness of your family heritage. You are dearer to Me than My life, for you are My companion in the performance of religious duties.” (Lord Rama speaking to Sita Devi, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 10.21)
Society has various definitions of what constitutes a charitable or selfless act. Welfare work is usually equated with philanthropy, or the giving of money to charitable institutions or providing help to those who are considered disadvantaged. These acts are undoubtedly noble, but the Vedas tell us that there is an even higher type of service we can offer our fellow man. Helping others become God conscious is considered the highest welfare activity. Taking it one step further, those who help others in their execution of religious activities and devotional service are considered even more saintly.
Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, describes different types of sacrifices and pious deeds in His famous discourse to His disciple and cousin, Arjuna. Known as the “Song of God”, the Bhagavad-gita informs us of the different types of charitable activities and which mode of material nature they fall into: goodness, passion, or ignorance.
“That gift which is given out of duty, at the proper time and place, to a worthy person, and without expectation of return, is considered to be charity in the mode of goodness.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 17.20)
If we look at any society, no matter how opulent it might be, there are bound to be those who are struggling. In America, famous athletes tend to earn a lot of money. This is because the four major sports of baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, along with tennis and golf, garner great attention from the general public. Stadiums are often filled to the capacity and television ratings are very high. This leads to increased merchandise sales. The result is that there is plenty of money to go around between the organizers of these sports and their participants, the players. Many of these athletes are very young, and their new-found wealth can be overwhelming. Not knowing what to do with all their money, they take to philanthropy. Famous athletes such as Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and Roger Federer have all started their own charitable foundations. Agassi was so ambitious that he even started his own school in his hometown of Las Vegas.
These charities all target those who are considered disadvantaged or poor. Agassi’s school was created so as to allow underprivileged youths in Las Vegas to have an equal chance at a good education. The school was so popular in the beginning that many students from outside Las Vegas ended up applying and were granted admission. Agassi eventually had to go to court to block these outsiders from attending the school. In his mind, these people were wealthy enough that they didn’t need the help he was offering.
Herein lies the flaw with charity that is done on the material level. The Vedas tell us that the difference between the spiritual world and the material world is that the material world is one governed by gunas, or qualities, and karma, or work. The three qualities of material nature are goodness, passion, and ignorance. Each living entity possesses these qualities to varying degrees. Every action we perform, or karma, can also be classified into one of these modes. Charity performed in the mode of goodness reaps great spiritual merit. The performers ascend to the heavenly planets after their current life is over. Yet since the mode of goodness is still part of the material world, acts of charity by themselves don’t grant liberation.
Unlike the material world, the spiritual world is free of karma and guna. Life there is eternally blissful since it is the original home of the spirit souls. Due to our desire to imitate God, we were allowed to take birth in the material world. By acting in any of the three modes of nature, we are perpetually bound to the repeated cycle of birth and death. There is only one way out of this material world, and that is to think of God at the time of death.
“And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)
Charity on the material level also takes other forms. Many foundations are formed to fund research into fighting various cancers, such as breast cancer and leukemia. Then there are other organizations formed to help those coming from abusive families or relationships. People working for these groups certainly have noble intentions, but according to the Vedic definition, everyone in this material world is suffering. Actually, simply by taking birth here, one is deemed to already have suffered. The Shrimad Bhagavatam gives us information on the mindset of the child in the womb.
“Therefore, my Lord, although I am living in a terrible condition, I do not wish to depart from my mother’s abdomen to fall again into the blind well of materialistic life. Your external energy, called deva-maya, at once captures the newly born child, and immediately false identification, which is the beginning of the cycle of continual birth and death, begins.” (SB 3.31.20)
Taking birth means the spirit soul is again subject to the miseries of material life. Every living entity must suffer through old age, disease, and eventually death. Therefore anyone who acts in such a way as to cause the cycle of birth and death to repeat is deemed to be suffering. This situation describes almost everyone, for we are all associating with karma. Any work performed for a desired material result, or that work performed according to prescribed duty aimed at achieving material advancement, can be classified as karma. Vikarma is any work performed that causes one to fall further down the chain of species. Akarma is work that is performed to help one break free of the repeated cycle of birth and death.
To this end, we see that regular acts of charity don’t help the performer achieve perfection because they are still associated with karma. The recipients of such charity are benefitted in a material sense, but not in a spiritual sense. Since the material senses can never be fully satisfied, simply helping someone’s material condition won’t help them achieve the ultimate purpose of life, which is to become God conscious. Therefore the shastras state that there is an even higher form of charity and welfare work that one can perform.
In the above referenced quote, Lord Rama is praising His wife’s devotion to Him and the counsel she freely offered to Him. Lord Krishna is the original form of God but He periodically expands Himself into human form for specific purposes. As Lord Rama, God came to earth to annihilate the miscreants in the form of the Rakshasas, headed by their leader Ravana. By killing the miscreants, the Lord would, at the time same time, be providing protection to His devotees. Lord Rama’s advent took place during the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation. The brahmanas, the priestly class of men, had taken to forest life in hopes of further advancing in their spiritual pursuits. Brahmanas have several specific occupations they can undertake, which are delineated in the shastras. One of their primary duties is to perform worship of Lord Vishnu, Krishna’s primary expansion, by holding great sacrifices. At the same time, they are advised to perform austerities, known as tapasya, with the aim of freeing themselves from attachment to material objects. Tapasya is intended to help one advance spiritually. Every living entity has two souls residing within the body, the individual soul (atma) and the Supersoul (Paramatma). The “para” distinguishes the Supersoul from our individual soul. This is because the Paramatma is the direct expansion of God. Some philosophers falsely believe that God divides Himself into the Paramatma, and that at the end of creation, everything merges back into Him. In actuality, God expands Himself as the Paramatma, but at the same time, remains unchanged and complete in His potency.
Due to the influence of the material senses, the living entity is unaware of the presence of both the atma and Paramatma. This forgetfulness leads one to falsely identify with their gross material body, which is temporary in nature. The body is so temporary that it is changing every second. The body we had as a child is completely different from the body we have as an adult. Yet we still see people falsely identifying themselves as belonging to a specific race or even a particular nationality. The purpose of human life is to break free of these bodily designations and to realize that we are spirit souls, aham brahmasmi. By performing tapasya, we can get closer to connecting with the Paramatma residing within us. One who realizes the presence of the Paramatma can then start to take dictation from Him. The directions of the Paramatma are known as the divine consciousness, which is different from the material consciousness.
“For one who is so situated in the Divine consciousness, the threefold miseries of material existence exist no longer; in such a happy state, one’s intelligence soon becomes steady.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.65)
During Lord Rama’s time, the sages took to the forest since it was more conducive to spiritual life. The Rakshasas knew this, so they would range the night looking for these sages. Not only would the Rakshasa disrupt the fire sacrifices, but they would kill the brahmanas and then eat them. The shastras list specific sins and the consequences associated with them, but there is no higher sin than killing a brahmana; especially if he is a Vaishnava, or devotee of Lord Vishnu.
Lord Rama, His wife Sita Devi, and His younger brother, Lakshmana, happened to be roaming the forests of India at the time these events were unfolding. The sages directly approached Rama and asked Him to protect them. The Lord happily obliged. It was actually no coincidence that Rama was there in the forest at the time. God came to earth in the form of Lord Rama specifically at the insistence of the demigods. Ravana had defeated them in battle many times, and due to the boons he had received from Lord Brahma and Shiva, he was unbeatable in battle from any celestial being. Only a human being could defeat him. For this reason the demigods asked God to come to earth in human form. When the brahmanas in the forest approached Him, Lord Rama was ready, willing, and able to defend.
Yet Sita Devi had a few concerns relating to this request. Rama’s signature attribute was His devotion to dharma, or religiosity. As a pious prince, Rama set the example for the rest of society on the proper rules of etiquette and behavior for a leader. Sita Devi, a devoted wife and extremely pious person in her own right, was worried that Rama might take to violence without just cause. She raised her concerns to Rama in a very nice way. In response, the Lord told her not to worry because it was actually His duty to protect the brahmanas. Since the Rakshasas had already attacked, Rama’s defense of the sages was more than justified.
Rama knew what was in Sita’s heart, so He very much appreciated her concern. In the above referenced quote, He mentions that she is dear to Him, especially because she is a partner in the performance of His religious duties. This one statement teaches us the true meaning behind marriage. In the Vedic tradition, a virtuous wife is referred to as sadharma-charini since she is the partner in the performance of religious activities. Aside from merely providing regulation of sex indulgence, marriage life is meant to be a completely spiritual institution. For this reason it is known as the grihastha-ashrama.
Lord Rama’s statement not only applies to those who are married, but to all people. The ability to practice religion is the real benefit to this human form of life. The Vedas refer to religion as sanatana dharma, meaning the eternal occupation of man. It is our inherent nature to be servants of Lord Krishna, or God. Yet material nature lures us into being servants of our senses. The regulative principles of bhakti yoga serve as a starting point to helping us break free of this mindset. When one first takes up devotional service, there are several rules and regulations they must adhere to, the primary of which involve abstention from meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication.
Anytime we take up a new endeavor, success is not guaranteed. What can really boost our chances of success is having someone else there to help us. People wanting to lose weight often visit a personal fitness trainer. This person serves as a coach in way, pushing the person to exercise hard and eat right. The devotee of God acts in a similar manner. Aside from being a servant of God themselves, the devotee performs the highest welfare work by inducing others to take up devotional service. The shastras tell us that the highest reward in life is to have association with the saints. Pure devotees of Krishna are considered true saints, and having association their association means having access to a wealth of knowledge, guidance, and wisdom.
We are eternally indebted to the great Vaishnava saints and acharyas of the past such as Goswami Tulsidas, Vyasadeva, Lord Chaitanya, and Shrila Prabhupada, who were all trailblazers. They dedicated their lives to serving Lord Krishna and helping others become devotees. Sita Devi herself set the standard of excellence in the execution of devotional service. We should all take up bhakti yoga by following in the footsteps of these great authorities. If we are fortunate enough to make progress and become God conscious, we should then take to helping others achieve the same goal. Acting as someone’s companion in their performance of religious acts is really the nicest thing we can do for someone else.
Categories: protecting the saints