“O best among men, after fixing your intelligence in transcendental knowledge, do you follow completely the course of action decided by your mind. Being engaged in activities guided by intelligence [buddhya-yukta], those possessing great wisdom can decipher between auspicious and inauspicious activities.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.16)
For many of us, adhering to right and wrong is very important. We have an inherent understanding that certain activities should not be done and that others should be. Even if we aren’t aware of all the rules, we still more or less have a desire to remain on the virtuous path. Yet in this endeavor there are many gray areas; situations where we aren’t sure on what the proper conduct should be. In these instances, who should we turn to? The Vedas tell us that the only person who has a perfect understanding of right and wrong is the one who created the system in the first place.
Through experiencing life, we gain a basic understanding of morality, even if it may be relative. We should tell the truth, be kind to others, share our possessions with friends and family, and have compassion for the poor. On the flip side, we should avoid lying, stealing, cheating, etc. These are basic rules that most of us live by. But not every issue is black and white. Sometimes we’re not sure if we’re abiding by the virtuous path. For example, meat eating is a cause for concern. On the one hand, we have a desire to eat nice food, and the flesh of animals certainly tastes very good. On the other side, we have the issue of how to procure such food, for violence is most certainly required. Unless we wait for an animal to die of natural causes, we must mercilessly kill an innocent living being in order to eat its flesh. According to the viewpoint of many, this type of violence is never justified. The animal did nothing wrong, so why should we kill it? At the same time, there are others who believe that God gave man dominion over the animal kingdom. There are many animal species that actually kill other animals themselves, so in this regard, we aren’t really doing anything unnatural.
The issue of animal killing is only one small example of the questions that arise in relation to morality and virtue. Where do we go to settle such disputes? Most of the time, we approach those who come up with their own view of morality. Such people have been around since the beginning of the creation, for mankind has an increased level of intelligence over other species. Thus man will want to use his brain power to come up with various philosophies and ideals to live up to. We can’t blame people for coming up with their own ideas of morality, because they simply don’t know any better. If no one is there to teach right or wrong, or if there is a lack of authorized leadership in society, what are people to do?
There have been so many morality and pseudo-spiritual movements that have cropped up throughout history. Some famous personalities believed that violence was never allowed under any circumstance. Even if someone were to break into your house and attack your daughter, violence in retaliation still was not justified. Non-violence was the only way to perfection in life since it meant that you weren’t harming anyone else. Then there are others who believe that telling the truth is the most important virtue. Under no circumstances is lying acceptable. There are others who take charity and philanthropy to be the greatest virtues. Above anything else, we should try to help the poor and the down-trodden by giving them money. “Open nice schools and big hospitals, because service to mankind is the highest religion.”
Amazingly, there are also those who actually believe that the highest virtue in life is to try to satisfy the senses in any manner possible. What most of us would consider as impious behavior [lying, cheating, and stealing], others view as virtuous. “After all, this life is the beginning and end of everything. Why not try to enjoy as much as possible? You only live once, so why not make the most of it?”
It is impossible to take an accurate inventory of all the theories and philosophies that are in existence today. If you walk into a retail chain bookstore, you will see hundreds of self-help books on every subject imaginable. Each one of these authors has a different philosophy on life, a set of moral principles to live by. So how do we know who is right? How do we know if we are acting piously or impiously?
To answer these questions properly, we must first examine the purpose of virtue and morality. Why is it important to behave properly? What is the ultimate objective? To this end, we see that there are different virtues and moralities based on what we are trying to achieve. For example, say our end-goal is to make sure every person in the world has adequate food, shelter, and clothing. Keeping this vision in mind, we would take the necessary steps to not only give away our own wealth, but also to induce others to be charitable. We would lobby governments to change their taxing and spending policies to make sure the poor were taken care of, regardless of who else might get hurt. In this system, right and wrong is determined by comparing the result of an action to the end-goal of eliminating poverty. If we have a question as to whether we are behaving piously or impiously, we simply have to decipher whether the action we are taking is furthering the mission of serving humanity through charity.
This same concept can be applied to almost any other philosophy. For example, right and wrong for a high court judge is determined by studying the law. Say that a judge must adjudicate a trial relating to the issue of abortion. Though for many of us, the practice of abortion is an issue of morality, in this case the judge must put aside their personal opinion. Right and wrong is determined solely by what is stated in the law. If existing law states that abortion is sanctioned, and there is no other case law or written code which refutes this, then all cases relating to abortion must be decided in favor of the practice continuing. For a high court judge, their occupational duty is to view cases without any bias and with deference to the law. Thus their system of right and wrong is based solely on what is written in the law codes of the city, state, or country.
This is all very interesting, for we see that there are so many different systems of right and wrong depending on a person’s disposition. But how do we decipher right and wrong for every person as it relates to daily life? How do we determine the common standards of morality and decency which everyone can abide by under all circumstances? Once again, the issue comes down to our end-goal, what we are striving for. We have already seen that morality can change based on a person’s occupational duty or desires. Yet we also understand that every person has different desires, so there really is no way of determining whose occupational duty will take precedent. One person may be a lawyer and another may be a police officer, but there’s no way of adequately determining whose occupational duty is more important or virtuous.
In order to find real morality and virtue, we have to know the purpose of our existence. Contrary to what most people believe, the aim of human life is not the acquisition of wealth, fame, beauty, or knowledge. Though it is nice to gratify our senses, this pursuit is not the reason for our existence. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, state that every single person’s occupational duty is to seek out the supreme enjoyer, the original owner of everything, and the best friend of all the living entities. Only one person meets these qualifications: God. The occupational duty of finding and serving God exists eternally and applies to every single living entity, regardless of their religious faith, gender, ethnicity, age, etc.
How do we know that our duty is to love God? We inherently understand that simply taking up some mundane occupation cannot be the point to life. After all, everyone has different desires and goals, thus each person walks a different path in life. Even after achieving all of one’s goals, desire still remains. We see that the most celebrated financiers and business moguls remain ever-unsatisfied even after acquiring billions of dollars in wealth. We see that successful politicians become so much attached to power that they never want to give it up. Many past Senators in America served so long that they actually died while in office.
There is a higher form of happiness and bliss which cannot be achieved through material pursuits. There is a dormant desire for spiritual bliss that exists inside all of us. This inclination towards spiritual life is not easily acted upon because we’re not sure which religious system is correct. Who can we trust? One religious leader says one thing, while another says something completely different. This is why the only bona fide religious system is that which teaches people to love God. Any other religious system or philosophical speculation will fall short if it is not attached to God.
The Vedas define the occupational duty of man as dharma. Dharma is that set of principles which is all-encompassing, meaning that one who properly understands dharma will have perfect knowledge of right and wrong under any and all circumstances. For example, there is a right way to go about building a house, and also a wrong way. The right way will lead to a sturdy and safe housing structure, while the wrong way can lead to disastrous results such as the house collapsing. Similarly, there is a right way to read and a wrong way to read. Reading the right way means understanding the words as they are presented, while reading the wrong way means being unable to understand the intent of an author.
“The whole cosmic order is under Me. By My will it is manifested again and again, and by My will it is annihilated at the end.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.8)
Dharma can be thought of as the sum total of every right and wrong way to do something. This is because real dharma comes from the creator of everything in this world: God. We may be able to create on a small scale, and a giant business magnate may be responsible for all the buildings in a particular city, but there is only one person who has created everything in this world. That person is known as Lord Krishna in the Vedic tradition. We can think of Krishna as God, but the word “God” itself is not very descriptive. Every person has a different conception of what God means, but more or less, we don’t have any concrete understanding of what He looks like, what His activities are, or what His demeanor is. To fill in the blanks, the Vedas give us God’s names, forms, and attributes. Though the total number of qualities is unlimited, there is one form of God which stands above all others. That form is Lord Krishna, whose very name means one who is all-attractive.
Since God is the beginning, middle, and end of everything, it makes sense that He would be the proper person to turn to for issues relating to right and wrong. After all, the purpose of human life is to reconnect with Krishna, so wouldn’t it make sense to look to Him to provide guidance on how to go about making that connection? God is not unkind in this regard. Though He allowed us to take birth in this world, He doesn’t want us to remain here perpetually. Through His kind mercy, He gives us the set of guidelines which, when followed, will allow us to return to His spiritual abode. This set of guidelines is known as dharma.
One may ask, “Where do I go to get these guidelines? I don’t know where God is.” Though the Lord, as antaryami, is all around us through His various energies and expansions, it is true that we currently cannot see Him with our material eyes. Fear not though, as the Lord was kind enough to pass down Vedic wisdom to great personalities in the past. They in turn then passed it down to their disciples, thus creating a chain of disciplic succession known as the parampara system. If we want to know what is right and wrong, and how we should act in every situation, we simply need to consult a person belonging to this chain.
“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion-at that time I descend Myself.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.7)
Sometimes this chain gets broken, so the Lord personally appears on earth to reinstitute the principles of religion. Around five thousand years ago, Lord Krishna came to earth in His original form to impart spiritual wisdom to His dear friend Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Many thousands of years before that, however, the Lord appeared on earth in His incarnation as Lord Rama. An avatara, or incarnation, of Krishna is non-different from the Lord, even though His outward physical features may be different. Lord Rama appeared in the guise of a handsome prince who was the son of the king of Ayodhya. On one occasion, Lord Rama’s beautiful wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped while she was residing in the forest with Rama and His younger brother, Lakshmana.
Lord Rama, who was God Himself, played the part of a human being very well, so He gave way to lamentation and grief after finding out His wife was missing. He searched the forest for a little while, but couldn’t find her. Losing rationality and good judgment, Lord Rama became so angry that He was ready to destroy the whole world as revenge for His wife’s kidnapping. At this moment, Lakshmana stepped in and offered some sound words of advice.
In the above referenced statement, Lakshmana is asking Rama to deliberate on what is right and wrong by taking shelter of transcendental knowledge and then decide on the proper course of action. Prior to this, Lakshmana had offered his own sound words of advice, reminding Rama that every person must meet both good and bad fortune in life, but that these temporary setbacks should not deter anyone from remaining on the path of dharma. Yet after uttering these cogent statements, Lakshmana reiterated the fact that Rama Himself was more than capable of determining the right course of action. This is exemplary behavior from a pure devotee of God. Lakshmana, having always been by Rama’s side throughout his life, was a true expert on morality and virtue. He took service to Rama to be his only dharma in life, thus he automatically acquired perfect knowledge relating to the rights and wrongs of all other areas in life. Yet Lakshmana made sure to remind Rama that He was God Himself, and that He didn’t need this sort of counseling.
The lesson given by Lakshmana here is that the truly wise can, by always occupying themselves in activities guided by the highest intelligence, determine on their own what is the right course of action. The only way a person can be classified as truly wise is if their intelligence comes directly from God or one of His representatives. This was the case with Rama and Lakshmana, for one person was God and the other was His protector and representative. In a similar manner, we too can make ourselves wise by humbly submitting to a devotee of Krishna. The spiritual master has seen the truth because he himself learned it from his spiritual master. We can’t make up morality on our own, because even if we try, we will always come up short.
The spiritual masters take to devotional service, or buddhya-yukta, as their main occupation. Devotional service is described as such because it represents the most intelligent activity. The most potent process of devotional service is the chanting of the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. By taking to this process and following the instructions of the spiritual master, we can fix ourselves in transcendental knowledge, and thus be able to choose the right course of action in any and all situations.
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