“For those who are wandering in the material universe, there is no more auspicious means of deliverance than what is aimed at in the direct devotional service of Lord Krishna.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.2.33)
The American television sitcom Friends had a particularly funny episode relating to quitting a gym. Two of the main characters in the show were members of an exercise facility, or gym, and since they weren’t regularly attending, they had decided to end their memberships. Quitting a gym isn’t so easy though, and the episode focused around the trials and tribulations related to getting out of a gym membership. Though only part of a fictional television show, the episode gives insight into how material nature, as a whole, operates.
Friends first aired in 1994 and ran for 10 seasons. It was enormously popular, and one of the many reasons for its success was its ability to relate to the average citizen in America. The show was set in New York City, where the day-to-day lives of a group of friends, all in their late twenties, were chronicled. Two of the main characters on the show were Chandler and Ross. They were friends for a long time; they had roomed together in college. In one particular episode, Chandler had decided he wanted to quit his gym. He was paying a monthly membership fee but was hardly ever going. It didn’t seem worth it to retain the membership. However, Chandler knew that quitting the gym wouldn’t be so easy. The health club wouldn’t give up his patronage without a fight. Knowing this, Chandler enlisted the help of his good friend Ross. The two devised a plan whereby they would stand strong against any persuasive techniques employed by the gym’s staff.
The principle tactic used by the gym’s staff was guilt. When Chandler and Ross went to cancel the membership, not only did Chandler not cancel, but Ross ended up signing up for a new membership. The trainers at the gym told Chandler and Ross that quitting would be a bad idea because it would mean they wouldn’t get into shape, and that this would result in them being less attractive to women. Realizing that quitting the gym wasn’t an option, Chandler and Ross decided they would instead try to close their bank accounts, thereby eliminating the source of funding for their gym memberships.
For comedy to be good, it must have an element of truth to it. For this reason, this particular episode of Friends was very funny. Though the actual events of the episode were a parody or even an exaggeration of real life, it is most certainly true that quitting a gym is not an easy task. A gym owner is running a business after all, and so their job is to have as many paying customers as possible. Gym owners bank on the fact that the majority of their members will hardly ever attend the gym. This is why most health clubs employ a contract or automatic payment style of membership. One either commits to paying an entire year’s membership fee, or they pay monthly with the payments automatically charged to a credit card or debited from a bank account. Each health club in America is full of paying members who almost never attend. Some keep paying month after month, year after year, without ever going. Quitting is not an easy task either. Some gyms will require you to give a valid reason for breaking out of your contract. Other gyms actually won’t let you quit in person. They require a member to send a certified letter to an office. The thinking behind such tactics makes sense. The owners of the gym realize that if a person is too lazy to go to the gym, they will be too lazy to take the necessary steps to quit.
The health club is a microcosm of the entire material creation. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that spirit souls have a choice as to whether or not they want to take birth here. The material world is itself a sort of playground, where the spirit souls can assume bodies that are created, perform some action, leave some byproducts, and are then destroyed. Though there are varieties of activities in this playground, the end-goal is always the same; the living entities want to be God. They want to be the ruler of the playground. God is only fair after all, so as long as this desire remains, the spirit soul is repeatedly cast into the nescience of the material world. A person thinking they can become God is the very definition of nescience.
The material world is governed by maya, which is God’s illusory energy. Maya traps us into playing her game of karmic activity. Karma is fruitive work, and by its definition, it cannot lead to liberation. Liberation means associating with the spiritual energy, or God Himself. While the material world is full of nescience, the spiritual world is just the opposite. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is described as having a body full of bliss and knowledge, sach-chid-ananda-vigraha. Not only is Krishna knowledgeable, but so is anyone who is directly in contact with Him. Not only is Krishna worshipable, but so are His land and spiritual realms. The material world, though created by Krishna, is only a partial representation of His energy. It is not considered spiritual because God Himself does not directly associate with it. The Lord has no desire to associate with an inferior energy.
“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, Bhagavad-gita, 7.16)
Many of us come to the realization that material life is not for us. We either may be put into great difficulty, or we seek higher knowledge, or we just have an inkling that there is more to life than sense gratification. In these instances, we try to quit material life and take to religious life. Yet like the gym owners, maya doesn’t let her members quit so easily. Those who take to religious life are guaranteed to encounter many obstacles along the way. Maya is always telling us that we’ll be happier associating with her. She is always enticing us with the sinful activities of meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex.
Since we have associated with maya for so long, we have developed obligations to family, friends, and society. Material life means making plans. “I will do this, I will do that, and I will be happy.” These plans certainly do lead to temporary happiness from time to time. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch. With actions come consequences. We may plant seeds in the form of various plans and material activities, but these seeds eventually grow into trees. The trees appear to give us happiness, but they also have thorns on them that tear at us and cause us to bleed. When we try to give up association with maya, these thorns really dig in. For example, for those growing up in Western countries, it is very difficult to give up the sinful activities of meat eating and intoxication. If we suddenly stop eating meat, our friends may chide us. “What are you a saint now? You know it’s pretty girly to be a vegetarian. Real men like to eat meat and drink beer.” Of course this logic is silly. Being a man means eating the flesh of an animal that somebody else killed in a slaughterhouse? Giving up intoxication is just as hard. So much of social life revolves around going to bars and having drinks. If a person gives these up, they must drastically alter their social life.
Since quitting the gym was so hard, Chandler and Ross decided to try the alternative method of closing their bank accounts. In a similar manner, aspiring transcendentalists often try alternative methods such as jnana-yoga or hatha-yoga as a way of breaking free from maya. Jnana-yoga involves studying Vedanta and understanding the difference between matter and spirit. Hatha-yoga involves various breathing exercises and sitting postures aimed at curbing the influence of the senses. Both of these processes are certainly bona fide methods of transcendental realization but they are difficult to perform, and also, they don’t reward the practitioner with much. Perfection in jnana-yoga means merging into Krishna’s impersonal energy known as Brahman. This also means losing one’s identity, for there is no activity, spiritual or material, in Brahman. Hatha-yoga provides a similar type of reward, the merging into the body of Lord Narayana, Krishna’s four-handed form.
There is one very easy way to quit material nature. This method is known as bhakti yoga, or devotional service. This is the best method because it is actually much more than just a method of self-realization. The Vedas tell us that the spirit soul is originally a part and parcel of Krishna. The spirit souls are inferior to God, but they can still attain perfection when they realize their constitutional position as eternal servants of the Lord. Bhakti yoga means acting according to the original nature of the soul. In its purified form, the soul engages in unalloyed loving service to Krishna. The only real way to break free of maya’s influence is to change our desires from the material to the spiritual.
When we quit a gym, we stop going. This also means we probably will stop exercising. Quitting the material world through devotional service is different. It doesn’t mean that we stop performing activities altogether. Rather, we just purify our activities by dovetailing them with God’s interests. So how do we do this? In this age, the easiest method is the chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This chanting can be done by any person, at any stage in life. It simply requires movement of the tongue and mouth. There is no difference between God and His name, so this activity is completely spiritual in nature.
The key is to spiritualize all of our activities. Religious leaders around the world recommend that people attend church at least once a week. This is certainly a good recommendation, but we see that many people forgo attending church. Skipping church on Sundays is as easy as not attending the gym. “Since it’s only once a week, who will notice if I’m not there?” This is why devotees of Krishna advise people to make service to God their fulltime occupation. One may ask, “How can I engage in religious activity all the time if I have obligations such as work, school, and family?” This is where chanting comes in. Anyone can chant the maha-mantra anywhere and at any time. We can chant while in the car, in our room in the morning, with our families at night, etc. The possibilities are endless.
Along with chanting, there are other processes of devotional service such as hearing, remembering, worshiping, etc. As one progresses in devotional life, they can take up these other processes. In order to protect against falling back into the clutches of maya, it is also advised that one refrain from the four pillars of sinful life. It is much easier to give up meat eating and intoxication when we are doing it out of love for God. In addition, the more we chant the more spiritual strength we acquire. This is necessary when fighting against maya. Material nature is very strong, but if we have firm faith in the instructions of Krishna and the spiritual master, we will surely emerge victorious.