“Actually, the cultivation of knowledge or renunciation, which are favorable for achieving a footing in Krishna consciousness, may be accepted in the beginning, but ultimately they may also come to be rejected, for devotional service is dependent on nothing other than the sentiment or desire for such service.” (Shrila Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 14)
For serious students of Vedic philosophy, jnana and vairagya are two terms that come up quite often. Jnana refers to knowledge and vairagya refers to renunciation or detachment. These are two pillars of spiritual life; one who acquires renunciation and knowledge becomes eligible to take the next critical step: developing love for God. Though knowledge and renunciation certainly are important, they are not prerequisites for devotion. This means that pure love for God, Krishna-prema, which is the highest transcendental achievement, is not dependent on anything besides the sentiment coming from the devotee. There is one group of people in particular who serve as a great example to illustrate this point.
“By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.4)
Jnana and vairagya certainly boost our chances of realizing God. The Vedas tell us that those who keep their mind fixed on the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord at the time of death never have to take birth again. God does have hands, feet, and a face, but these body parts are transcendental in nature. They are not limited in any respect. God is everything, but everything is not God. For example, our hand is part of our body; hence it can be taken to be the same as the body. However, if the hand is removed, it becomes useless and can no longer be considered part of the body. Therefore our real identity comes from the spiritual spark inside of us. The body is just a covering, a temporary dress that is eventually discarded.
With God, there is no difference between His body and soul. Everything personally related to the Lord is spiritual; therefore anyone can focus on any aspect of His transcendental body, which is eternal and full of bliss and knowledge, and achieve perfection in life. Why is it important to think of God at the time of death? Many of us are familiar with the concept of a person’s life flashing before their eyes at the time of death. This isn’t just some myth or an idea concocted from the experiences of a few select people. Rather, it is a scientific fact, for the time of death is the greatest moment of panic in one’s life. Naturally at this critical stage, one’s life experiences flash before their eyes. In the famous Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna that this replaying of one’s life’s events is known as their consciousness at the time of death. Whatever one focuses on at this critical time determines the type of body they receive in the next life.
“In whatever condition one quits his present body, in his next life he will attain to that state of being without fail." (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.6)
In more simple terms, a person’s lifestyle determines their “deathstyle”. Therefore, the secret to achieving success in life is to cram as many spiritual activities into one’s lifetime as possible. This is not easy, especially since we are accustomed to acting in the interests of the senses. The senses guide us where to go and how to act. Spiritual life means acting in the interests of the master of all senses, Hrishikesha, or God. In order to help us concentrate on spiritual life, the acquisition of knowledge and the practice of renunciation are recommended. The two can go hand-in-hand, for after acquiring the proper knowledge of the soul and its constitutional position in this world, it becomes easier to detach from things which are detrimental to the future well-being of the soul. The reverse situation can also be true, where one practices penance and austerity with the aim of clearing the mind, thus allowing one’s thoughts to focus on the acquisition of knowledge.
Renunciation and knowledge are actually helpful in achieving success in any activity, not just spiritual endeavors. For example, if a person wants to have a good job as an adult, they must do well in school in their youth. Performing well in school requires the understanding of math, science, reading, and writing. Since it is the inherent nature of the child to desire to play all day, there are several tricks that parents and even students use to help focus on studies. One of the greatest tools is the reward. Taking an example from our own personal experiences in our youth, we would make sure to always do our homework as soon as we got home from school. School is no picnic for children; students are essentially locked up in a prison type environment for eight plus hours in the day. As soon as they get home, children want to play or watch television. We were no different in this regard, yet we came up with a nice system to help ensure that our homework was done. We had no affinity for school work, but to keep school pressures to a minimum, we would do our homework as soon as we got home. We essentially made a deal with ourself: “If you do your homework right when you come home, then you can watch television for the rest of the day. This way you can just sit back and relax later on.”
Now watching television certainly isn’t a productive activity. The point of going to school is not to be able to come home and sit on the couch in front of the television. However, this reward of watching television proved to be an invaluable tool in our academic maturation. This simple trick enabled us to focus on our schoolwork and not fall behind. As a result, we more or less received very high marks in school throughout our youth. In a similar manner, the Vedas also offer various enticements to help the aspiring transcendentalist acquire knowledge and renunciation. There is a section of the Vedas known as karma-kanda, wherein various sacrifices and penances are recommended. The rewards for the performance of such sacrifices can involve ascension to the heavenly planets or general good health. Obviously God is not too concerned with material benedictions, for the material world is temporary and full of miseries. At the same time, He knows that detachment and knowledge are not easy things to acquire, so He sort of tricks us into going after these paltry rewards. It is similar to how a parent will offer candy as a way to get their child to take medicine. The goal is to take medicine, not to eat candy, but the parent needs to be a little clever in their approach.
By performing various rituals and adhering to certain fasting periods, we can make great progress in our spiritual pursuits. At the same time though, the highest religious practice, bhakti-yoga, is not dependent on knowledge or renunciation. Jnana and vairagya certainly do make it easier to come to the platform of bhakti, or love, but this devotion to God is not dependent on anything except the sentiments found in a person’s heart. Moreover, a perfect devotee of God automatically acquires all required knowledge and detachment without separately endeavoring for it. An example of this was seen with the gopis of Vrindavana.
God is one, but He takes unlimited forms based on time, circumstance, and a person’s penchant for offering service. Though there are limitless forms, as many as there are waves in the ocean, there is still an original form from which all others emanate. That form is Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Due to His causeless mercy, the Lord appeared on this earth some five thousand years ago. Though He performed many pastimes in several different cities during His one hundred plus years on this planet, His most pleasurable pastimes occurred in His youth in Vrindavana. Krishna grew up as the foster son of a cowherd family, thus His duties as a child included tending to the cows and taking them out to the pasturing ground. In those times, the women of the town would also engage in tending to cows. Vedic culture stresses great importance on the cow and its protection. A cow is seen as a form of wealth because if a person has a small piece of land and a few cows, all of their economic problems are solved. They don’t require a Federal Reserve Chairman, a Ways and Means Committee, or a politician promising to bring them jobs. Simply by protecting this great animal, the cow, all needs can be taken care of.
The milkmaids and cowherd girls were known as gopis, and they were especially enchanted by Lord Krishna. Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Krishna’s most recent incarnation to appear on earth, emphasized devotion to Krishna in the mood of the gopis. At first glance, this seems a little strange. After all, the Vedas often mention that women are less intelligent in areas of material knowledge. For this reason, traditionally they weren’t given a formal education. This was certainly the case with the gopis; they were all young girls who were married and worked at home, taking care of the family and the cows. Yet these gopis had intelligence that far exceeded that of today’s academic scholars and self-appointed pundits.
The gopis always thought of Krishna, no matter the time or place. Though they were married, their hearts belonged to the Lord. In this way, they were completely detached from the material world and all its governing rules and regulations. They also had the highest knowledge. A great example of this was seen when they would discuss amongst themselves about Krishna’s playing of His flute. When Lord Krishna would play His illustrious flute, anyone who would hear the sound would immediately become mesmerized. All the signs of devotion to God would be visible on their bodies, such as the hair standing on end, devastation, increased heart rate, and tears in the eyes. When Krishna would play His flute, the gopis would talk about how the whole world was benefitted by hearing such a sound, and how the flute itself was benefitted. They wouldn’t limit their knowledge to the localized aspect of the flute. They would delve further into the matter by thinking about the bamboo tree from which the flute was made. They would also think about the neighboring flowers, dirt, and lake by the tree which produced the wood, which produced the flute, which had the special benediction of touching the lips of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
This sort of thinking is reserved for the most intelligent class. The greatest economists often discuss the idea of mutual cooperation and the “invisible hand” that helps so many people from disjointed areas around the world produce wonderful products. The gopis took this theory one step further by identifying who this invisible hand belongs to: Krishna. In the Vedic tradition, devotees who are on the highest level of understanding are called paramahamsas. Hamsa refers to a swan. It isn’t a coincidence that intelligent devotees are compared to swans. A swan has the unique ability to take a mixture of milk and water and only extract the milk portion, while leaving the water portion unaffected. In a similar manner, the greatest devotees are the greatest [param] swans because they extract all the good elements from life.
Lord Krishna is the supreme pure, so anyone who sees Krishna in everything is one who sees clearly. This was certainly the case with the gopis. They didn’t outwardly accept or reject anything; rather they studied everything in terms of its relation to Krishna. They saw Krishna in everything, so their vision was always clear. This mindset is reserved for the most intelligent class, those who have acquired jnana. Even today, many great scholars who possess knowledge and renunciation are still blinded by the light emanating from the transcendental body of the Supreme Lord. Hence they take the Absolute Truth to be formless. Essentially, they act in just the opposite way of the gopis, i.e. they try to remove Krishna from everything.
Lord Chaitanya asked sincere souls who were after spiritual enlightenment to follow the mood of devotion of the gopis. He practiced what He preached, for He always explained everything in terms of Krishna. This is really the only way to explain anything. We can watch the nightly news on television or read the latest paper and see the latest headlines, which are all portrayed as being new and fresh, when in reality they are simply the same stories recycled in a different form. On the surface, it seems as though Lord Chaitanya followed a similar model by explaining everything in terms of Krishna. But since He explained everything this way, His explanations were the only ones worth hearing. His discussions focused on God, so one can repeatedly derive great pleasure from hearing these explanations over and over again.
The lesson here is that jnana and vairagya are certainly important, but we should still keep in mind that there is an additional step that needs to be taken in order to achieve transcendental perfection. If we always keep the gopis in our mind, especially Lord Krishna’s beloved Shrimati Radharani, there is no doubt that we will be able to remember the Lord’s lotus feet at the time of death.