“Bhakti-yoga, devotional service, is the basic principle of all systems of philosophy; all philosophy which does not aim for devotional service to the Lord is considered merely mental speculation. But of course bhakti-yoga with no philosophical basis is more or less sentiment.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.29.1-2 Purport)
Many people around the world profess to belong to a particular religion, but they have little knowledge as to what their faith actually teaches. “I am a Catholic, I am a Hindu, I am a Jew, etc.” Many of us inherit our faith from our parents, but if we aren’t given an education on spirituality during our childhood, it is likely that we’ll grow up to be ignorant of what religion truly means.
The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that religion is meant to be an intellectual pursuit. More than just blind faith, religion is defined as sanatana-dharma, meaning the eternal occupation of man. Dharma is religiosity or duty, so it is something that can never change. Dharma cannot be manufactured, nor can it be adjusted based on a person’s whims. The Vedas tell us that not only do we all have an occupational duty, but that this duty is eternal. How can this be possible if man is mortal?
“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.20)
The answer is that religion is meant for the soul. Man is certainly mortal, but his soul is not. The soul is the spark that gives life to a body; it is something that comes from God. The Vedas tell us that the Supreme Soul is Lord Krishna, who is also known as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The jiva souls, or the living entities, are fragmental sparks of the blazing fire which is God. Since we emanate from the Supreme Lord, our spiritual quality is the same as His. It is similar to how a particle of gold is no different in makeup than a huge gold mine. At the same time, there is a drastic difference in value between a tiny speck of gold and a huge reservoir of gold. Krishna is the huge reservoir, and we are the tiny particles.
The Vedas tell us that, as fragmental parts of the supreme whole, it is our occupational duty to remain connected with the source. This means that the soul is meant to always be in association with God in a loving way. Love means caring and having concern for someone or something else. When directed at God, this love is known as prema. Prema is the most purified form of love because it is associated with God, and also because there are no expectations of reciprocation. We may fall in love with a man or a woman in our lifetime, but we often see that we can fall out of love depending on later circumstances. Love for God is not flickering; it is eternal.
If we’re meant to love God, why are we put on this earth? Since the spirit souls are inferior to God, they have a tendency to become illusioned. The greatest illusion is the idea that one can become God. It is this flawed desire that lands the spirit soul in the material world. There is a way out, however, which is religion. Sanatana-dharma is meant for reconnecting the soul with its lost lover, the Supreme Lord. There are many religious systems in existence today, but the only bona fide religion is that which teaches people to know, understand, and love God. There may be different faiths, but dharma never changes. The soul is meant to be with God, and this fact doesn’t change based on time or circumstance.
The problem that exists today is that most religious leaders don’t teach people how to love God. In fact, most leaders don’t even stress love for God as the end-goal. They typically prescribe one of two paths: karma or renunciation. Karma is fruitive activity, and when applied to religion, it is generally associated with achieving ascension to the heavenly planets. “Act in such and such a way and God will reward you. He will give you riches and take away your suffering. He will let you go to heaven after death. Believe in the power of prayer.” This thinking is certainly good because God is the original proprietor of everything. Not a blade of grass moves without Krishna’s direction. However, we see that today many areas of society are very well-off, especially in America. Many people live quite comfortably without giving any attention to religion. Thus they are left to wonder what the purpose of religion is. “I am already wealthy and have plenty of food. Why do I need to pray to God?”
As we see time and time again with famous celebrities, wealth and fame, by themselves, don’t bring happiness. Therefore the Vedas tell us to view God as our only object of pleasure, and not as an order supplier. “God give me this, give me that. If You don’t come through for me, then I’ll stop believing in You.” The Lord is not someone we can command in this way. He may or may not grant our wishes for material success, but in the end, it shouldn’t matter; all our fortunes and misfortunes come to us as a result of karma. The Supreme Lord plays no direct role in karma. We can think of the laws of nature as an impersonal set of rules. Rulebooks are written so as to not favor any particular party. In any game, there are going to be people who want an edge, a way to cheat the system. The rulebook is in place to prevent this from happening. Along with the rulebook, judges, or enforcers of the rules, are required. In the material world, this is handled by the demigods, who are elevated living entities in charge of various departments such as rain, wealth, health, etc.
“Those who study the Vedas and drink the soma juice, seeking the heavenly planets, worship Me indirectly. They take birth on the planet of Indra, where they enjoy godly delights. When they have thus enjoyed heavenly sense pleasure, they return to this mortal planet again. Thus, through the Vedic principles, they achieve only flickering happiness.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.20-21)
Sanatana-dharma is not meant for elevation to the heavenly planets. The Vedas tell us that heaven and hell certainly do exist, but that they are still part of the material world. This means that residence on those planets isn’t permanent. Real heaven can only be found on the spiritual planets of Krishnaloka and Vaikunthaloka. There the Supreme Lord, or one of His various expansions, resides in the company of His eternal servants, nitya-siddhas. The goal of human life is to return to these spiritual planets, for one who goes there never has to take birth in the material world again.
So how do we connect with God? For this age, the Vedas recommend the constant chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Krishna and Rama are authorized names of God, so they are open for anyone to chant. Chanting Hare Krishna does not violate the rules of any religion. This chanting is so beautiful because it is the epitome of dharma. The Vedas tell us that there are different dharmas, or prescribed duties, based on a person’s level of intelligence and their material qualities. In the end, however, the highest form of dharma is known as bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service. Chanting God’s name in a loving way falls under the category of bhagavata-dharma. Hare Krishna essentially means, “God, I love You. Please let me always engage in Your service. Let me always think of You, wherever I am. You may elevate me to heaven, or demote me to hell, but please let me keep Your beautiful form in my mind. This way, I can be happy in any situation.”
The other path recommended by the religious leaders of today is renunciation. “The material world is false and miserable. Thus we must block out everything. We must curb our activities and remain steady on the virtuous path. Blocking out the effects of the senses, one can achieve perfection in meditation and renouncement.” This path is certainly valid, for it will help a person eliminate their bad habits and achieve some form of peace. However, there is no enjoyment in the path of dry renunciation. It is the nature of the spirit soul to crave individuality and activity. Variety is the key ingredient in enjoyment, but in dry renunciation we see that there is no variety, thus there is no enjoyment. This makes the path of renunciation very difficult. Another factor to consider is that if a person gives up sinful activity, but still craves these activities in their mind, they really aren’t making any progress. If we still have sinful desires at the time of death, God will not be so unkind as to force us to leave a place that we are attached to. On the contrary, He will allow us to remain in the material world for as long as we have a desire to.
Bhagavata-dharma is the religion of love. The calls for peace, forgiveness, and curbing the senses from the religious leaders of the world are certainly very nice, but there is more to life than just being virtuous. Dharma can also be defined as righteousness, and the purpose of following the righteous path is to come to an understanding of God. Bhagavata-dharma helps one connect with God immediately. Those who remain steady on the path of devotional service automatically acquire all good qualities. Even renunciation is achieved, for pure devotees of the Lord learn to abstain from illicit sex, gambling, intoxication, and meat eating without any problems.
“Religion without philosophy is sentiment, or sometimes fanaticism, while philosophy without religion is mental speculation. The ultimate goal is Krishna, because the philosophers who are also sincerely searching after the Absolute Truth come in the end to Krishna consciousness.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bg. 3.3 Purport)
It is natural for us to approach God when we are in distress, but this needn’t be the case. It is far better to learn to love God under positive circumstances than under duress. We certainly must have faith in God, but there must be philosophy as well. The Vedas give us the largest collection of philosophy that exists in the world. Along with developing a steady chanting routine, devotees can learn about Krishna and the soul by regularly reading great books such as the Shrimad Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita. Bhagavata-dharma is the true definition of religion, for it is an eternal occupation that delivers pure bliss to the soul.