“The sufferings of humanity are due to forgetfulness of Krishna as the supreme enjoyer, the supreme proprietor, and the supreme friend. Therefore, to act to revive this consciousness within the entire human society is the highest welfare work.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 5.25 Purport)
Comment: “I believe serving humanity is the best way to serve God.”
Response: Sometimes those who are unfamiliar with the true meaning of the Vedas, or those don’t believe that God has a name or a personal form, will take to philanthropy and other charitable work as a way of life. Viewed as service to humanity, this kind of welfare work seems appealing on the surface, but the Vedas tell us that the best way to serve all of mankind is to directly serve the Supreme Lord.
“A person engaged only in ministering to the physical welfare of human society cannot factually help anyone. Temporary relief of the external body and the mind is not satisfactory.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 5.25 Purport)
Service to humanity has limits. This is because at the core, philanthropy and other charitable acts all aim to please the body. In the Vedic discipline, the first instruction given to aspiring transcendentalists is that we are not our bodies, aham brahmasmi. We are spirit souls, part and parcel of God. The body is just a temporary covering composed of material elements made up of the qualities [gunas] of goodness, passion, and ignorance. This is the first instruction given to religious students because understanding this truth presents the biggest hurdle towards making real progress. By default, we all associate and identify with our body. We don’t know anything else, so why shouldn’t we think this way? However, if we apply a little intelligence, we see that our body keeps changing. We started off as a small pea inside the womb of our mother, and through the course of time we developed into full grown adults. Our bodies constantly go through changes, but our identity remains the same. This is because our true identity comes from the soul inside, atma. The soul is eternal, and does not go through birth or death.
“Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.17)
At the time of death, our current body is discarded and we are quickly given a new one. Therefore any intelligent person will not ascribe much importance to the gross material body since it is subject to destruction. Yet philanthropy and general service to humanity work solely on the material platform, aiming to please the demands of the body. The core of animal life consists of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. Human beings also engage in these activities, though they manifest in different forms. Humans eat elaborately prepared meals, whereas animals eat whatever they can find in the forest or in the water. Human beings sleep on cushy mattresses while animals sleep on the bare ground. However, the humor is the same. There are varieties of dishes that one can eat, but the resulting pleasure doesn’t vary much at all.
If we study some of the common welfare activities of today, we’ll see that they primarily address the animalistic concerns of the human body. Feeding the hungry and the poor is a very common welfare activity. In America, some people are homeless and in need of a good home-cooked meal. Soup kitchens and food banks do their best to try to make sure that no one in America goes hungry. These are very noble intentions, but what is the result of such activities? If a hungry person is given food, it will certainly give their body pleasure and relief for a brief period of time, but then what? Are all of their problems solved? The animal kingdom actually has no worries for food since God provides everything they need to eat. Human beings are supposed to have a higher level of intelligence, so why would they worry so much about eating?
Another factor to consider is the type of food that is given in charity. The Vedas tell us that every activity done on the material platform, including eating, has karma associated with it. The material platform refers to the material world in which we live. It is classified as material because it has gunas, or qualities, associated with it. Also it is a temporary place full of miseries. The spiritual world is just the opposite since it is composed of God’s superior energy. Spirit is superior to matter because spirit is eternal, whereas matter is not.
“Yet there is another nature, which is eternal and is transcendental to this manifested and unmanifested matter. It is supreme and is never annihilated. When all in this world is annihilated, that part remains as it is.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.20)
One may make the argument that since we are spirit souls living in the material world, how can this place be considered part of God’s inferior energy? The reason is that since we are constitutionally spirit, our natural home is in the spiritual world. Yet we are technically considered a separate expansion of God, jivatama. We are part of God’s marginal energy, meaning we have a choice as to whether we want to associate with His inferior or superior energy.
Material activities refer to anything that keeps one attached to this temporary material world. At the time of death, our work and our desires are measured, and we are given a new body in the next life. Performing material activity means doing things which cause us to take birth again in the material world. By default, all activity is considered material if it is done to satisfy our senses. Eating is included in this category. Therefore everything we eat has karma associated with it. If we feed the hungry with meat and other animal flesh, there is a negative karma that follows. Meat eating involves unnecessary violence towards animals. This naturally has negative karma associated with it, for one must suffer the consequences of the sin of unnecessary violence. These negative consequences don’t just attach to the killer of the animal, but also to the distributor and the eater of the animal flesh. Thus by feeding the hungry with meat, we are actually doing a disservice to them. Other activities such as opening hospitals, helping the poor with money, and searching for cures to common diseases also fall into the material category since they aim to please the body.
“It seems that all welfare activities are bad? What should we do with our time then? How do we help people?” The Vedas tell us that this human form of life is meant for understanding God. The consciousness at the time of death determines the next type of body for the spirit soul. If one elevates their consciousness to the spiritual platform, they are guaranteed to assume a spiritual body in the next life. Spiritual bodies reside in the spiritual world, i.e. God’s home. Once a spirit goes there, it never returns to the temporary material world.
“That supreme abode is called unmanifested and infallible, and it is the supreme destination. When one goes there, he never comes back. That is My supreme abode.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.21)
So how do we elevate our consciousness? The Vedas recommend that we practice bhakti yoga, or devotional service. Though it can be classified as a method of self-realization, the spirit soul is actually naturally inclined to serve God in a loving way. Every person believes in God at their core, but this belief and love is currently in a dormant state due to the effects of material nature. By following the regulative principles of bhakti yoga in the beginning stages, this love for God can slowly be aroused. Bhakti yoga is not just a religious practice, but a way of life. Religious leaders around the world recommend that we attend church once a week. Well if thinking about God once a week is a good thing, wouldn’t it be even better to think about Him every day? This is what will truly make us happy. Our life should be adjusted in such a way that we can always be thinking about God.
“If we engage in religious activity all the time, how will we maintain our lives? Don’t we have to work to maintain our families?” The beauty of devotional service is that it doesn’t require renunciation of activity. Bhakti yoga is very comprehensive and can entail many different processes, but the recommended method for this age is the constant chanting of the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Krishna and Rama are names of God and Hare refers to His energy potency; Radharani, Sita, Lakshmi, etc. Chanting is so nice because anybody can do it, at any time, and at any place. Thus we can continue our occupational duties and still remain fixed on the transcendental platform.
Not only should we chant to ourselves, but we should induce others to connect with God through the bhakti yoga process. In addition to regular chanting, devotees are advised to avoid the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. These principles can be taught to any person, regardless of their religious affiliation, skin color, or nationality. God is one, so chanting His name is something anyone can do. The Vedas tell us that Krishna is God’s original name, meaning He who is all-attractive. Inducing others to take up devotional service is the highest benefit to mankind since it helps souls return to the spiritual world.
“The rewards of your service to humanity can only be seen in the afterlife, which is something we can’t even be sure of. Ordinary service to humanity, such as charity and feeding the poor, produces immediate results that we can see.” Actually, we don’t have to wait for the afterlife to see the benefits of bhakti yoga. Since God is the creator of everything, He is the source of the humanity that we aim to please. By serving God, we automatically serve all things related to Him. It is similar to how we feed plants. We pour water on the roots of a plant since this means that all the branches and leaves will automatically be fed. To serve the body, we must supply food to the mouth, which transports the food to the stomach. The stomach then evenly distributes nutrients to the rest of the body. Our arms and legs are certainly parts of our body, but we would never think of trying to intake food through these body parts, for they wouldn’t know what to do with the food we were giving them. In a similar manner, the material creation, which includes humanity, the animal kingdom, plants, and aquatics, can only be properly served by bhakti yoga, or devotional service.
“How does bhakti yoga solve problems such as infidelity, violence against women, poverty, etc.?” If we study any common problem in the material world, we will see that the root cause is mankind’s forgetfulness of God. For example, divorce, abortion, and teenage pregnancy all are caused by illicit sex life. Illicit sex is strictly prohibited for devotees, meaning that those who practice bhakti yoga will never have to deal with the resulting problems. If we study the poverty rates in America, we see that the chances of ending up poor are greatly diminished if a person graduates high school, waits until they are married before they have children, and then remains married.
Service to God automatically addresses these issues. The Vedas consist not only of religious sentiment, but are themselves a comprehensive intellectual pursuit. Great scholars and academics have studied important Vedic texts for thousands of years. Vedic guidelines recommend that a person get married as soon as there is any inkling for sex life. Instead of the misery that results from free intermingling between men and women, getting married early on in life under religious principles ensures a happy and successful marriage. Householder life is actually referred to as a spiritual institution, the grihastha-ashrama, in the Vedas. The husband and wife are advised to focus their attention on God, and to perform all religious activities together in the hopes of advancing in spiritual life. Married couples are advised to only have sex for procuring children. In this way, we see that following the regulative principles of bhakti yoga can help people avoid the major problems of the day.
“But why should we worship one particular God, Krishna, when we can worship and serve the entire whole, which is represented by all of mankind?” God is a person. Since He is the source of everything spiritual, He himself is also a spirit. Therefore we are equal to God in a qualitative sense, yet different in a quantitative sense. This simultaneous oneness and difference is referred to as achintya-bhedabheda-tattva by Lord Chaitanya. The complete whole of mankind and material creation, as we see it, is only one of God’s features, known as Brahman. Impersonalists mistakenly believe that Brahman is the highest spiritual realization, but actually Brahman itself has a guiding force, the Supreme Soul.
“The total material substance, called Brahman, is the source of birth, and it is that Brahman that I impregnate, making possible the births of all living beings, O son of Bharata.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.3)
Paramatma is God’s expansion as the Supersoul residing within the hearts of every living entity. The Supersoul acts as an impartial witness. Since it is a direct representation of God, it is not subject to the bewilderment or illusion caused by material nature. Paramatma is an expansion of God, meaning it has a source which expanded to create it. This source is Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Bhagavan is God; the supreme person who has forms, pastimes, and spiritual qualities. The beauty of chanting Hare Krishna is that it directly addresses Bhagavan in a loving way. Impersonalists love to recite om instead of Hare Krishna because they refuse to believe that God has a name or a form. Om is certainly a spiritual vibration, but it also was created by God to be used in Vedic mantras and hymns.
“O son of Kunti [Arjuna], I am the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, the syllable om in the Vedic mantras; I am the sound in ether and ability in man.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.8)
The best way to serve humanity is to chant God’s names, induce others to chant, and to distribute as much Krishna prasadam as possible. As God is worshipable, so is His food. Prasadam is food in the mode of goodness, prepared specifically for the Lord. Offered with love and devotion, this food is then returned to us by God for us to enjoy. This simple formula of chanting and prasadam distribution will benefit all of mankind.