“The pastimes and activities of the Lord are not material; they are beyond the material conception. But the conditioned soul can benefit by hearing such uncommon activities. Hearing is an opportunity to associate with the Lord; to hear His activities is to evolve to the transcendental nature—simply by hearing.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 7)
Vedic literature is especially meant for the devotees. The Mahabharata, Puranas, and Ramayana are especially intended to give people direct contact with the Lord. This is the meaning of life after all, to love God and return to His spiritual abode in the afterlife. However, one can’t relish or understand the true meaning behind the verses found in these great books without first becoming a devotee, or bhakta. Therefore the Vedas, and the great acharyas who follow their teachings, recommend adherence to many rules. By performing austerities, or tapasya, and following the various regulations, we actually get to increase our enjoyment with God.
The Vedas are the original religious system passed down by God Himself. The universe isn’t created just once, but rather goes through cycles of birth and death just like the living entities. In most creations, Krishna Himself first imparts Vedic knowledge to Lord Brahma, the first created living entity. Vedic wisdom is best acquired through the hearing process, hence the Vedas themselves are known as the shrutis, meaning that which is heard. As time goes on however, written word is required in order for people to remember and reference Vedic teachings. The written form of the Vedas is referred to as the smritis. The smritis contain an endless set of rules and regulations to follow. They guide people on how many hours they should sleep, what time they should wake up, how much they should eat during the day, when they should eat, how they should behave towards others, etc. The epic Mahabharata touches on many of these issues in the conversations they reference between various sages and their disciples.
For this age of Kali, Krishna Himself came to earth in the form of a brahmana to propagate God consciousness. As Lord Chaitanya, God simplified all the rules of the Vedas by recommending that people simply engage in the congregational chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Along with this chanting routine, people are advised to refrain from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. Yet even these rules were only basic guidelines. At Lord Chaitanya’s direction, Sanatana Goswami wrote a detailed code of conduct for devotees. This book, known as the Hari-bhakti-vilasa, touches on all aspects of devotional service. It mentions the different offenses that one should avoid while chanting, how to perform deity worship, mantras for specific rituals, and so forth. Sanatana Goswami wasn’t the only one to write about devotional service, for Lord Chaitanya single-handedly started a disciplic succession of great writers. Shrila Rupa Goswami, Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, and A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada are giants of the Vaishnava literary world and they are all disciples in Lord Chaitanya’s line.
All the prescribed Vedic rules and regulations seem to take away from the fun of life. In fact, this is one of the many reasons why people shy away from spirituality and religion. Even those who are religiously inclined can easily get overwhelmed by the mountain of rules and regulations. “I just want to love and serve God. Shouldn’t that be enough? Shouldn’t religion be fun?” This is a common sentiment. Many of us just want to enjoy spiritual life with God. We understand the inherently flawed nature of material life. Constant hankering and lamenting can get old very quickly. Even if we achieve all our “dreams”, life doesn’t stop there. We still have to get up every day and perform activity. Desires never go away. Success and failure are certain to come, but there has to be a higher purpose to things. For these reasons, we take to religious life.
The Vedas and the great acharyas agree with these conclusions. In fact, the rules and regulations are specifically meant to benefit potential devotees. It is only through adherence to some form of austerity, or tapasya, that we can really begin to enjoy spiritual life. Hearing about Krishna’s pastimes is a great example of this principle. The tenth canto of the Shrimad Bhagavatam goes into great detail about Krishna’s early life and especially His pastimes in Vrindavana. The stories and pastimes contained within this book represent pure bliss. Though only a set of Sanskrit words put together into poetry form, the subject matter is completely spiritual and untainted by the miseries of the material world.
One will notice that there aren’t very many lectures or commentaries written about Krishna’s pastimes in Vrindavana. This is because the Lord’s activities are performed for the benefit of the devotees, hence they need no explanation. One of Krishna’s favorite pastimes as a child was stealing butter. He grew up in a cowherd family as the foster son of Nanda Maharaja and Mother Yashoda. Milk, butter, yogurt, and ghee were in full supply in Nanda’s house and also in the homes of the neighbors. Krishna and His brother Balarama would regularly raid the butter supplies of the neighbors, and then feed the butter to the monkeys of the village.
Krishna also enacted many wonderful pastimes with His cowherd girlfriends, the gopis. Shrimati Radharani is Krishna’s eternal pleasure potency expansion, so the Lord is especially fond of her. Radharani also grew up in Vrindavana, and part of her duties as a gopi involved travelling to the nearby town of Mathura to sell yogurt. Krishna would often intercept the path of the gopis and eat their yogurt. Many times, He would sneakily lick the cream off the top of the yogurt pots, thereby making the yogurt unsellable. The gopis tried taking alternative routes to get to the city, but Krishna would always find them and intercept their path.
The Lord enacted these and many other wonderful pastimes such as playing on His flute. This Krishna-lila brings pure bliss to the devotees. These stories don’t require commentary or lectures because the pastimes themselves are enough to grant liberation. Hearing about the pastimes of Krishna or His various incarnations is as good as directly associating with the Lord. This is the magic of God. After all, the meaning of life is to know, understand, and love God, so simply by hearing these wonderful stories, we can fulfill our life’s mission.
So if these stories are so wonderful, why do we need rules and regulations? The answer is that these pastimes can only be relished by devotees. In fact, we see that many non-devotees and miscreants open up the Shrimad Bhagavatam and immediately jump the tenth canto. They read about Krishna’s various pastimes with the gopis and they take the Lord to be an ordinary lusty human being like themselves. This is also another display of the Lord’s illusory powers. The words of the Bhagavatam don’t change. Yet two different classes of people can read the same words and get two completely different meanings out of them. Words are certainly words, but the shlokas relating to Krishna’s pastimes can only truly be understood by devotees.
For this reason, the various rules and regulations were put into place. They are intended to elevate people to platform of devotional service. If we simply jump to Krishna’s pastimes without knowing who He is or why the creation exists, then we will never truly benefit from such historical accounts. The lesson is that we should follow the instructions of the great Vaishnava acharyas. They worked very hard and suffered through many hardships in order to help future generations develop love for God. If we humbly submit ourselves at their lotus feet and follow their instructions, we too can enjoy the unending bliss that comes from direct association with Krishna.