“Unseen and indefinite are the good and bad reactions of fruitive work. And without taking action, the desired fruits of such work cannot manifest.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.17)
One of the unique aspects to the spiritual discipline known as bhakti-yoga is that desire is not eliminated. Generally in any advanced spiritual discipline, the two concepts of jnana and vairagya, knowledge and renunciation, are put at the forefront. Knowledge relates to information about the soul, its nature, and its future destination. Vairagya refers to detachment from the demands of the senses. In either case, the issue of desire is not usually broached. If it is brought up at all, it is portrayed in a negative light. Desire is seen as a harmful thing; something which causes the innocent spirit soul to be led off course. The path towards salvation can be thought of in terms of a ship sailing off to sea. The demands of the senses represented by desire, or kama, can be thought of as the light of a golden treasure which pulls the ship off course. Since desire diverts a person from their intended destination, it is seen as something that needs to be quelled or at least controlled. But according to the highest authorities, those who have realized the ultimate transcendental pleasure in life, desire is something that needs to be purified rather than eliminated. When our desires are pointed towards the proper destination, both the good and bad effects of the senses can be transcended.
“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)
Our desires drive us towards activity. In Vedic terminology, there is no equivalent word for “work”. The closest matching term is karma. But this term has much more meaning than ordinary work. Karma is any activity that leads to the further development of the material body, the outer covering of the soul. Karma is the system of cause and effect, with each action having a commensurate reaction. The reactions may be visible or invisible, foreseen or unforeseen. In addition, the development that results from such action may last for a very short period of time or for a very long time. In this way, we see that it is difficult to accurately judge whether a particular activity is pious or sinful. Sinful activities are those deemed to bring about negative reactions. Pious activities are intended to bring about favorable conditions. Since the reactions aren’t always visible, it’s tough to tell if an activity is worth performing. In addition, the reaction itself may be short-lived, thus adding a quantitative element to the piety or sinfulness of a particular activity.
A few examples can help us understand this concept more clearly. Telling the truth is generally equated with piety. Honesty is a virtue, so it is usually a good idea to tell the truth. Going back to the definition of karma, a pious act is something that results in a favorable condition at some point in the future. Thus telling the truth is meant to lead to a positive development of the material body. Honesty is considered an activity in the mode of goodness, or sattva-guna. According to Vedic information, those who live primarily in this mode ascend to the heavenly planets after their current life is over. To reside on a heavenly planet, one must possess a heavenly body. Possessing a heavenly body equates to heavenly enjoyment, and so on. Since increased enjoyment is seen as a favorable benefit, pious activities are recommended.
Yet if we closely study the issue of honesty, we’ll see that it’s not always easy to gauge whether telling the truth is the right course of action. If someone asks us about the nature of the soul, its constitutional position, and what activities will make it happy, honesty is surely the best policy. By telling the truth about Krishna, or God, and the soul’s intimate relationship with Him, we can help the inquisitive achieve transcendental perfection in life.
Let’s take another situation though. This situation occurs quite frequently and has thus formed the basis of much stereotypical male-female humor. It is quite common for a wife to ask the opinion of her husband in regards to an outfit she intends to wear. The question usually is phrased in this way: “Does this dress make me look fat?” Now what would the result be if the husband answered the question honestly, supposing that the dress did indeed serve to highlight the appearance of some rather unpleasant fatty areas on the body of the wife? Surely the wife would get offended if the husband told her the dress made her look fat. Her spirits would be dampened, she would feel unattractive, and she would surely be upset with the husband. There is a famous piece of advice given to men who have just gotten married: “If she ain’t happy, you ain’t happy.” By telling the wife that the dress makes her look fat, the husband makes the wife unhappy, and in turn has also made himself unhappy.
There are other more serious situations where lying is preferable. Say for instance that a child asks us something relating to adult matters. A child does not have the intelligence to understand grown up affairs, so it would be silly to answer all of their questions honestly. In these cases, and many others as well, it is better to lie than to tell the truth. Again, the issue boils down to the result. Depending on the scope of action, and our intended result, a particular activity may be beneficial or harmful. For example, stealing is considered sinful, but if we were to take away drugs and alcohol from an addict, surely such theft would lead to a positive result in the future. In this way, we see that piety and sin are relative. An action may be considered pious in one situation, but sinful in another. Since it is not easy to always foretell the end-result, deciding on the proper course of action becomes difficult.
Regardless of the situation or the nature of the activity, for the desired result to be achieved, one must take action. This was the point stressed by Shri Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama. In the Vedic tradition, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is taken as one who kindly descends to earth from time to time. Every living entity can be considered God’s child, and therefore the elevated souls, those who are devotees of God, can surely help the conditioned souls, their brothers and sisters, get reacquainted with spiritual life. Nevertheless, under special circumstances, the Almighty Divine Entity, God Himself, decides to make a personal appearance on earth.
For an ordinary soul, appearing in the material world requires the assumption of a dress composed of material elements. Our body can be thought of as a spacesuit. In order for a human being to survive in the atmosphere of outer space, a special kind of outfit is required, something which will allow the living entity to keep its vital force intact. In a similar manner, the purified spirit soul, who is part and parcel of God, needs a suitable body in order to reside on a particular planet. On planet earth, there are up to 8,400,000 different outfits a soul can acquire, each tailored to the performance of specific activities.
The uniqueness of the human body lies in the area of intelligence. In the body of a human being, the spirit soul can take to activities of intelligence, guided by the highest knowledge. This purified activity can lead to a change in consciousness, a condition which allows the soul to eventually return to its original home in the spiritual sky alongside God. While the jiva [individual] souls require an outer material covering to come to earth, the Supreme Lord doesn’t. Since matter was created by God, it can never affect Him in the same way that it does us. Therefore the bodies of His various incarnations, such as that of Lord Rama’s, remain completely spiritual. For God, there is no difference between body and spirit.
Rama performed many wonderful pastimes during His years on earth. On one particularly troubling occasion, He gave way to lamentation. His beautiful and chaste wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped and taken to an island kingdom of Lanka by a demon named Ravana. Losing one’s beloved is surely the most dreadful experience for any person. In Rama’s case, He was an expert warrior and was thus tasked with providing protection to the innocent. If He couldn’t protect His wife who was by His side, how good was His protection to begin with? These are the thoughts that went through His mind after Sita’s kidnap.
Fortunately, Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana was by His side. Lakshmana was essentially a twin copy of Rama, except that his bodily complexion was fair while Rama’s was dark. Lakshmana took service to Rama to be his only dharma in life. He listened to all the instructions that Rama gave Him during their youth. Like a good disciple, Lakshmana picked the perfect time to show his brother what he had learned. When Rama needed him most, Lakshmana was there.
In the above referenced statement, Lakshmana is reminding Rama of the nature of fruitive activity. In the first part of his statement, Lakshmana says that it is difficult to ascertain whether a particular activity is sinful or pious. This is because the reactions of fruitive work don’t remain forever. Since the material world is one that is constantly changing, no situation can remain in place indefinitely. Pious activities lead to favorable results and sinful activities lead to unfavorable results, but in either case the reactions are difficult to see. Sometimes we think a particular activity is pious, but there are so many other unintended consequences that are associated. Karma can be thought of as a giant neural network of cause and effect, with the outcomes, represented by the reactions of work, colliding with one another. No one can make due of this jumbled mess except the Supreme Lord Himself.
Even with this uncertainty relating to karma, Lakshmana states that it is not possible for one to achieve their desired results without action being taken. This action doesn’t necessarily have to be taken by the individual seeking the result. Often times, things come to us of their own accord. In reality though, our good fortune is merely the result of activities undertaken in previous lives and also activities performed by other living entities. This supports Lakshmana’s argument. A result cannot be achieved without action. Therefore Lakshmana is advising Rama to take the necessary steps to find and rescue Sita. Without someone taking this action, Sita’s rescue would never happen. Lord Rama would heed this wonderful advice and eventually find and rescue Sita, thus reuniting with His beloved.
“Even a man of knowledge acts according to his own nature, for everyone follows his nature. What can repression accomplish?” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.33)
So what does this information pertaining to action mean for us? Vedic information states that the highest spiritual discipline is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. This discipline is unique because desire is indeed recognized and made use of. We should notice that Lakshmana didn’t discount the issue of desire in his teachings. He first reminded Rama of the uncertain nature of fruitive activity. But then he reiterated the fact that one’s desires can only be achieved through action. Herein lies the secret to bhakti-yoga. The spirit soul is always full of desire. Simple repression cannot take away the seeds of desire, the need to be happy. The discipline of devotional service calls for the purification of desire instead of its suppression. Desire is the result of a longing for a particular object or condition. When this condition relates to the material body, which includes the senses, the desire is considered polluted. When the intended favorable condition is that of God’s satisfaction, the desire is considered purified.
How can God be satisfied? Again, we can look to the example of Lakshmana. Sita was kidnapped while residing in the forest with Rama and Lakshmana. Lord Rama was only in the forest because of a request made by His father, the King of Ayodhya. Lakshmana and Sita were not requested to go to the forest, so they had no reason to be there. But since they loved Rama so much, they refused to remain in the kingdom alone. For Rama’s satisfaction, they insisted on accompanying the Lord for the duration of His fourteen years of exile in the forest. Many others wanted to go with Rama, but they weren’t given the opportunity. Lakshmana and Sita, through their pure devotion which manifested in tears of love, forced Rama to take them with Him. Goswami Tulsidas references this fact in his Dohavali. He states that Sita and Lakshmana were so purified that they were able to accompany Rama, while the other citizens were not. For Lord Rama to allow this, He must have derived great pleasure from their company. This is actually a fact. No one can give more pleasure to the Lord than Sita and Lakshmana can.
This means that the Lord is capable of being pleased, provided that one’s heart is pure. The Lord can only be pleased through acts of devotion. Simply acquiring wisdom or taking to renunciation is not enough. All other aspects of spiritual life are supplementary to the practice of devotional service in pure love. If we view God as the Supreme Enjoyer, all of our desires will be purified. Through God’s enjoyment, our transcendental senses also become satisfied. Sita and Lakshmana were never happier than when they were in Rama’s company. We too can forever remain focused on the Lord’s transcendental, love-evoking form by regularly chanting His names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This is the quintessential activity of bhakti-yoga. The enjoyer in this cause and effect system is the Supreme Lord. The cause is the transcendental sound vibration uttered by the surrendered soul. The result is the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord and anyone else within earshot of such chanting. Since the Supreme Lord will be satisfied, the ultimate favorable condition is met. In such a system, sin and piety do not play a role. The good and bad are tossed aside since the Supreme Pure is immediately reached.
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