“Whomever you meet, instruct him on the teachings of Krishna. In this way, on My order, become a spiritual master and deliver the people of this country.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 7.128)
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A term you hear quite often from celebrities and wealthy people is “giving back”. The term is generally associated with the idea of charity, i.e. giving back to the community at large. While the idea of helping the underprivileged in the community seems noble enough, how do we decide who is worthy of our service? Who is actually responsible for our success? Who have we taken from, and who is it that we owe our debt of gratitude to? More than anyone else in the world, the person we owe the most to is God, along with all of His devotees.
Famous celebrities and athletes often reach a point in their lives where they need something more. Either they have achieved all the success and fame they coveted, or they have reached a point where they feel guilty about their financial disposition. “I am too wealthy. I have more money than I can think of. I need to really make a difference in someone’s life.” To alleviate their concerns, the wealthy take to acts of charity and philanthropy. They will open schools, hospitals, or set up charitable foundations which disperse their assets throughout the community. With charity, the areas of interest often have a personal connection to the person donating the money. For example, a famous hockey player may form a program relating to helping underprivileged youths take up hockey. The player might build a rink in a poor neighborhood or sponsor a camp where lucky children get to participate in games and take hockey instruction directly from the athlete.
When these players and celebrities are asked why they are taking to charity, they often answer with, “I need to give back to the community.” Now if we study the makeup of this one statement, we’ll see that the premise is flawed. “Giving back” implies that something was taken. With the example of athletes, what have they taken? Their revenue comes from ticket sales, merchandise sales, and television revenue for their sport. In regards to ticket sales and the sale of merchandise, did the athlete force anyone to fork over their hard earned money? Did the athlete force people to watch games on television, inviting their friends and family over to take interest in the biggest games of the season? Do movie stars force people to spend ten dollars to see a movie in the theater, along with the added expense of buying popcorn and soda?
We see that this kind of wealth, the type earned in a free market, comes about through the peaceable and voluntary exchange of goods and services. The term capitalism is generally associated with rich tycoons and crafty businessmen, but in reality, what we know as capitalism is simply the free exchange of goods. Free doesn’t refer to the cost, but rather to the exercise of freedom. In a pure free market, no one is coerced into spending money or into selling a product or service. Hence the exchanges are made peaceably and voluntarily. Moreover, there is a respect for private property and the rule of law. This means that stealing someone’s property and then selling it is not allowed.
It is quite normal to see the wealthy disliked by others. “They have so much money, what do they need it for? They are greedy and they spend all their time exploiting the innocent public.” While there is no question that greed exists, in a free market, it is impossible for a person to become rich without voluntary support from the masses. For example, a star baseball player earns millions of dollars for simply hitting a baseball and running around bases. How does this happen? People spend money to go to games, to buy jerseys, and also to patronize the sponsors of these games when they are aired on television. So we see that the baseball player himself has done nothing to force action; no one can accurately claim that he is undeserving of his salary. If the public is outraged about a player’s salary, they have no one to blame but themselves.
The same holds true with tycoons of industry. Oil company executives have long been deemed villains, with oil spills and other related accidents not helping their cause, but how did they become rich in the first place? Don’t most of us purchase the gasoline that they sell? If none of us purchased gasoline, jet fuel, or home heating oil, the executives at the oil companies wouldn’t earn a penny. So if we are to be angry with or jealous of anyone, we need only look in the mirror. The same principle applies to software and retail outlets. Bill Gates and Sam Walton became rich because they found products that appealed to a massive audience. Their money was earned peaceably and voluntarily.
So in this respect, we see that the wealthy don’t need to give anything back to the community because they haven’t taken anything. Nevertheless, the philanthropic work of the wealthy seems noble enough, so why should we care if they mistakenly believe they need to give back? The issue is with the nature of the charity work. Whether they are opening up hospitals, day camps, soup kitchens, or charitable foundations, we see that philanthropists are primarily aiding the material conditions of others. What do we mean by material?
“The Supreme Lord said, The indestructible, transcendental living entity is called Brahman, and his eternal nature is called the self. Action pertaining to the development of these material bodies is called karma, or fruitive activities.” (Bhagavad-gita, 8.3)
The Vedas tell us that all energies can be placed into two general categories: the divine and the material. The divine is related to spirit, i.e. anything that is permanent, immutable, and always full of knowledge. The material relates to anything which is created, maintained, and destroyed. Based on the definitions of these two natures, we can understand that our bodies are part of the material nature, while our souls are part of the divine nature. Of the two, the divine energy is superior because it never changes. Moreover, the divine nature is directly related with God, while the material nature is considered part of His separate energy.
Since the material nature is always changing, as evidenced by the development of our own body, does it make sense to pay so much attention to it? Many of us feel for the poor. “There are so many people out there that go to bed hungry. It doesn’t seem fair. We should help them out.” In reality, even the wealthy go hungry every now and then. The wealthy have a way to satisfy their hunger, but inevitably, that hunger is sure to return. The poor are certainly hungry more often, but they too get satisfaction from time to time. In the end, is there any difference between the hunger of a poor person and the hunger of a rich person? Are these two feelings not the same?
The Vedas tell us that every person who lives on the material platform, i.e. he who associates exclusively with the material energy, is hungry. This means that we are all underprivileged. How do we go from being underprivileged to over-privileged? First off, no amount of money can help our spiritual condition. Money is part of the material energy, so it can never touch spirit. It has no effect on our spiritual fortunes. In order to satisfy our spiritual hunger, we must engage in spiritual activities. By associating with material nature, we work on developing our future body. Not only is our current material body always changing, but at the time of death, we are given a new body based on the activities we performed over the course of our lifetime.
“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.6)
The goal of human life is to take to activities which work on developing the spiritual body. How do we do this? Luckily for us, many great saints of the past saw the light themselves. They became disgusted with material life. Either they were extremely wealthy, or they realized the futility in seeking after sense gratification, so they took to spiritual life. Thankfully, they didn’t just achieve spiritual perfection and then keep all their acquired knowledge to themselves. Being the greatest welfare workers, these saints preached the spiritual message to anyone who would listen, and they also wrote down their instructions in books.
Let us revisit the issue of “giving back”. Since we see that the wealthy usually don’t take anything from anyone else, does this mean they aren’t indebted to anyone? The Vedas tell us that God is actually the proprietor of everything. This means that not only does He own all the land, air, water, sea, etc., but He even owns our bodies. “If God owns everything, does that mean we are stealing?” Though He owns everything, God kindly allows us to use those things which come to us through honest endeavors. Still, if we falsely claim ownership of everything without acknowledging God, we are most certainly thieves. The wise, realizing that God is everything, utilize all their possessions towards pleasing Him.
In order to associate with the divine nature, we must understand three things: God is the proprietor of everything, He is the supreme enjoyer, and He is our friend. Those who understand this have no problem deciphering what action should be performed and what shouldn’t. Moreover, they also understand who they need to give back to. Service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, is the most sublime engagement, the highest form of welfare work.
“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.34)
What activities make up this service? In order to find out, we first need to seek out someone who knows God, someone who has served Him already. God is the oldest person; He never takes birth nor does He die. Prior to the time of our present birth, God provided many great instructions and performed many wonderful pastimes. These instructions and pastimes have been documented by the great saints, the keepers of the faith. We simply need to consult these instructions to figure out the proper course of action.
Not only are we indebted to God, but to His devotees as well. They are the torchbearers. Great saints like Narada Muni, Vyasadeva, Tulsidas, Shrila Rupa Gosvami, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and countless others have all passed on the supreme science of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to God. We are forever indebted to them for their untiring devotion to the Lord and their desire to glorify His name, form, and pastimes. Though God never dies or goes away, these saints kept Him alive in a sense by passing on information about Him to society at large.
How do we give back to these great saints? The first thing we need to do is consult their literature and understand their teachings. The great saints advise that we make devotional service our primary occupation. The simplest and most effective devotional activity for the people of this age is the constant chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Coupled with this practice, we must also remove all unwanted things in life, anarthas, the primary of which are the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex.
Simply making a sincere effort at devotional service is enough to please the saints. Yet this alone doesn’t fully repay our debt to them. Life’s mission is certainly complete once we understand that Krishna owns everything, that He is our best friend, and that He is the greatest source of pleasure. But we should try to go one step further by then passing on this same information to others. By enlightening others about the meaning of life and pointing them in the right direction, we come closer to evening the balance sheet as it relates to our spiritual debts. Even if we can’t instruct others, if we simply tell others about Krishna and His devotees, we will be engaging in the highest welfare work. The formula is very simple, and the resultant effects in society will show very quickly.