“By performance of religious rituals one ultimately reaches the supreme goal of knowledge by understanding that Vasudeva, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the cause of everything.” (Shrila Baladeva Vidyabhushana, Govinda-bhashya commentary on Vedanta-sutra)
Many advanced transcendentalists and religious scholars downplay the need to perform Vedic rituals and sacrifices. To back up their position, they point to various statements in the Vedas that openly declare that simply performing rituals is not enough. This is indeed true in many instances since simply going through the motions of religious functions is a waste of time if it doesn’t lead one towards devotion to God. In truth, Vedic rituals can prove to be an invaluable tool in the arsenal of spiritual activities available to an aspiring transcendentalist. For this reason, these sacrifices and religious functions should not be neglected.
The performance of Vedic rituals is very important for people who are just starting off in religious life, i.e. the beginners. Those unaccustomed to spiritual life naturally have an affinity for material sense gratification, or karmic life. Almost everyone engages in a life of sense gratification, whereby they perform just enough work to maintain their bodies. When they are not working or sleeping, they are finding ways to enjoy their leisure time. In the modern age, television viewing is a popular pastime. The existence of cable and satellite television means that there are hundreds of channels to watch at any given time. Digital video recorders provide added convenience since they can record every episode of our favorite shows to be watched at a later time. This means that we can develop a love and attachment to various television shows and their characters.
Most television shows don’t stay on the air for very long. There is fierce competition between the major networks, which means that if a new show doesn’t garner high ratings in the beginning stages, it is likely to be cancelled very quickly. Even the shows that prove to be successful only last at most eight to ten years. One of the most popular television sitcoms in history, Friends, ran for ten seasons; Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond for nine seasons, and Cheers for eleven. The typical television season spans twenty-two episodes, which means that a long lasting show will likely eclipse the two hundred episode mark. Taking the sum total of all the episodes of all the famous television shows will leave a fan with a lifetime’s worth of television viewing. Most of these shows are available on DVD now, meaning that we can watch all our favorite episodes over and over again.
Television viewing, done in moderation, isn’t overly harmful. People work hard during the day, so they like to relax at night. Television is nice because it lets the mind escape from the daily pressures of life. Too much television viewing, or sense gratification in general, can be harmful to us because it robs us of precious time. In the grand scheme of things, our time on this earth is very short. The Vedas tell us that this particular creation will last for billions and billions of years. Many of us fear what will happen to our souls after death. Where will we go and for how long? An equally relevant question can be asked about our past. Where were we before our current life? The earth has been around for billions of years, so what were we doing during all that time?
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.12)
The Vedas, the original scriptures for mankind, help us answer these questions. Since Vedic wisdom emanates from Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, it represents the most authorized form of knowledge. Unlike scientific theories and hypotheses, the Vedas represent undeniable truths of life expounded by the Supreme Lord Himself. To help future generations of man, the Lord kindly imparted this wisdom to several exalted living entities in the past, who subsequently passed down the same knowledge to their disciples. Thus the Vedic literature that we see today, consisting of the Puranas, Mahabharata, Ramayana, etc., contain the same information that God Himself spoke to Lord Brahma at the beginning of creation.
“Brahma, it is I, the Personality of Godhead, who was existing before the creation, when there was nothing but Myself. Nor was there the material nature, the cause of this creation. That which you see now is also I, the Personality of Godhead, and after annihilation what remains will also be I, the Personality of Godhead.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.9.33)
The central teaching of the Vedas is that we are not our bodies. Life is indeed short, but the lifetime of our soul is not. The events we refer to as birth and death are in actuality just changing of material bodies. Death represents the shedding of our current set of clothes, and birth represents the assumption of a new set. The spirit soul remains intact throughout this whole process. These events of birth and death continue in a repetitive cycle due to the living entity’s desires and work. Essentially, it is up to us as to whether we want to continually die and take birth again.
To break free of this cycle, we have to simply change our desires. This is the benefit of human life. Other species have no ability to understand desires and work. They simply act off their animal instincts. A pig, cow, or bird has no idea that it is going to die. It has no understanding of the difference between matter and spirit. Only human beings can understand this fact. We are so smart that almost all of us eventually realize that life is short and that we will be forced to die on day. However, knowing this fact and acting on it are two different things.
Many of us choose to deal with the death issue by ignoring it. “Sure, I’m going to die, but so what? Why do I want to obsess over something so grim? Let me just live my life and enjoy every possible moment.” This mindset may appear to be logically sound, but its major flaw lies in the fact that death doesn’t represent the end. God is very nice. If we want to stay here in this material world and enjoy, He will gladly let us do so. Once our current body becomes old and useless, He lets us assume another one and start our activities all over again.
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.13)
Perfection in life can only be achieved when one understands who God is and what their relationship is with Him. Lord Krishna says that anyone who thinks of Him at the time of death will immediately be granted liberation from the cycle of repeated death. Not only will their soul never return to the material world, but they will also enjoy eternal association with God in the spiritual world. This is the real definition of liberation. We may try to enjoy in various ways here on earth, but real enjoyment can only be of the spiritual variety. God is the supreme spirit, so through association with Him we can enjoy pure transcendental bliss.
There are various transcendental mellows that one can experience with Krishna, but before we can associate with Him, we must purify ourselves. Karmic activity is very hard to break free of, for it is what we have been accustomed to throughout our many lifetimes on earth. This is where Vedic rituals come into play. Knowing that loving God is the true purpose of life is one thing, but actually realizing this fact is another. Theoretical knowledge serves as a good foundation, but this knowledge is worthless if we don’t use it for our benefit.
“Regulated activities are prescribed in the Vedas, and the Vedas are directly manifested from the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Consequently the all-pervading Transcendence is eternally situated in acts of sacrifice.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.15)
To help us get on the path towards liberation, the Vedas prescribe two important regulative functions: tapasya and yajna; austerity and sacrifice. There are many different kinds of austerities and sacrifices, but the most important ones are those done for the satisfaction of Lord Vishnu, or God. Vishnu is a direct expansion of Lord Krishna, thus the two names can be used interchangeably when referring to God. Tapasya isn’t meant to be a method of torture. The great acharyas have recommended that we refrain from meat eating, intoxication, gambling, and illicit sex life. Abstention from these activities serves as the primary form of austerity. Also, on specific religious holidays people are advised to fast for a set duration of time or to avoid certain kinds of food. The performance of tapasya is aimed at curbing the influence of the senses. Our minds are always hankering and lamenting, and if we always act on our desires, our senses will never be controlled. Tapasya helps us regulate our senses so that we can better focus on serving God.
Yajna is the performance of sacrifice. Most Vedic sacrifices include some type of fire ceremony, with oblations of clarified butter, or ghee, poured into the fire while auspicious mantras are recited. One of Krishna’s names is Yajneshvara, meaning the lord, or controlling power, of sacrifice. To those unfamiliar with Vedic customs, such sacrifices may seem strange. “Oh these are just rituals. Every religion has their own rituals. They must not be that important. What’s more important is to study Vedanta or other highly philosophical Vedic texts.” Yajnas certainly do appear ritualistic, but they actually serve a great purpose. While tapasya involves abstention from activities, yajna involves actively engaging oneself in religious life. It is the nature of the spirit soul to be active, meaning we must always be doing something. Rather than waste our time on useless activities, the Vedas advise that we perform sacrifices so that we can always stay connected with God. Human beings are creatures of habit. The more accustomed we get to performing sacrifices, the more likely we are to think about God, which in the end, is the whole point.
It is very difficult to control the mind and to have it constantly focused on spiritual matters. By engaging in religious activities, we give the mind more events and experiences to use as reference points when contemplating matters relating to the soul and God. Religious leaders around the world advise their members to visit church every Sunday. This certainly isn’t a bad thing since going to church helps a person think about God. If it’s a good thing to think about God once a week, wouldn’t it be that much better to think about Him every day? This is the opinion of the Vedas. To help us think about God every day, the scriptures provide us a multitude of religious rituals and other rules and regulations to follow.
The current age we live in is not very conducive to the performance of elaborate sacrifices or the adherence to strict rules and regulations. In the Kali Yuga, the recommended sacrifice is sankirtana-yajna, or 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”. The beauty of this sacrifice is that anyone can perform it. One doesn’t have to be an expert brahmana or even a Hindu to chant Krishna’s name. There is only one God, and He is for everyone. Therefore the name of Krishna is open to everyone to chant, regardless of their age, caste, nationality, or ethnicity.
This chanting should be taken up by every person. It is a great way to spend our time. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada advised everyone to chant the Hare Krishna mantra at least sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads. Chanting, along with visiting temples, adhering to regulative principles, reading Vedic literature, and eating Krishna prasadam are enough to secure liberation in one’s current lifetime. These activities, which collectively make up the discipline known as devotional service, are all aimed at pleasing the Supreme Lord. Devotional service helps us use our time constructively. By following the regulative principle in the beginning stages, we are sure to be rewarded one day with pure love for God, or Krishna-prema.