“It is not a fact that the Lord appears only on Indian soil. He can advent Himself anywhere and everywhere, and whenever He desires to appear. In each and every incarnation, He speaks as much about religion as can be understood by the particular people under their particular circumstances. But the mission is the same-to lead people to God consciousness and obedience to the principles of religion.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 4.7 Purport)
Probably the largest stumbling block towards spiritual realization in the modern age is the existence of so many different religious systems. Growing up in a diverse a country as America, one is exposed to people who come from varying backgrounds, who each speak their own language and have their own divine figure that they worship. With this variety in religion, one can be misled into thinking that spirituality is simply a man-made concoction, that the concept of a God exists simply to alleviate the greatest fear of all: death. A similar line of thinking believes that religion exists to explain the unexplainable; therefore it must be grounded in theories which are impossible to prove. The Vedas, the oldest scriptures in existence, are so wonderful in that they not only tell us about God and His creation, but they also explain why so many different religious systems exist.
Let’s first tackle the issue of what religion means. Religion, or spirituality, is simply a discipline of worship. You have one entity: the worshiper, or the person who is subordinate. The complementary entity is the worshipable: the object of worship, the supreme or divine entity. Religion then becomes that system which aims to please the object of worship; a discipline which, at a minimum, defines the relationship between the worshiper and the worshiped. Based on this definition, we see that religion is something that can certainly vary, for the object of worship can differ from person to person. Since everyone has different entities they deem as worshipable, they will have different conclusions as to what the aim of life is and how one should go about attaining it.
“…Due to the great variety of desires and natures among human beings, there are many different theistic philosophies of life, which are handed down through tradition, custom and disciplic succession. There are other teachers who directly support atheistic viewpoints.” (Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.14.8)
Since every person has an object of worship, every person is religious. This is indeed true; even the vilest person, the one who denounces God and His followers, is religious. The reason so many different religious systems exist is that each person who has settled on their ultimate objective in life, be it the association of an object of worship or the attainment of a palatable condition, then creates a system to help others reach it. For example, the chain bookstores are filled with books about how to be successful in various ventures. Book titles are usually of the same nature: “The 10 keys to success in business…How to be a good parent…How to make your relationship work…The 10 principles to happiness.” These books are written by those whose ultimate objective related to the specific topic of interest mentioned in the book, be it the accumulation of wealth, a happy family life, or weight loss. In this way, we see that these books represent the scriptures of the authors in that they have a list of do’s and don’ts [essentially pious and sinful acts], along with a promise for a better condition in the future.
When the objects of worship switch from matter to spirit, the discipline can be classified as a religion in the common sense of the word. Even in the arena of spirituality, there are varying recommendations, processes, sins, and ultimate conclusions. The Vedas tell us that these religious systems can be thought of as different grades in an educational establishment. The teachers of these systems claim to have received their knowledge from Divine authority. Taking their claims at face value, we see that the teachers, who manifest as different prophets, are deemed to have a first class understanding of the principles of spirituality. Yet there are still differences in the teachings, and the Vedas tell us that these differences are due to the time and circumstance. Depending on the specific time period, people at large may not be ready for the highest truths of spirituality. Therefore the chosen one, the appointed spiritual master or representative of God at the time, decides to focus on a specific issue. Some choose to focus on the eradication of animal violence, while others persuade society to look to God as the ultimate order supplier instead of a government entity. The point to all of this is that even though one teacher may be teaching a second grade class, while another teaches twelfth grade, the ultimate object of knowledge is still the same. The twelfth graders have no reason to look down upon the second graders, because the younger students are simply working their way up towards the higher platform.
What is that higher platform? What is the ultimate objective of religion? In the material realm, the ultimate conclusion depends on the individual’s viewpoint. A businessperson deems the aim of life to be the running of a successful business, an entity which provides a good or service which is popular enough to secure enough profits to support a comfortable lifestyle. For the marriage counselor, a peaceful marriage condition is seen as the ultimate objective in life, one where both husband and wife are happy in each other’s association. In spiritual life, the ultimate objective is to have a pleasurable relationship with the Supreme Lord. For the subordinate living entity, basking in the transcendental sweetness of the Personality of Godhead in His original form brings the highest pleasure, both material and spiritual, that can exist. This relationship is free of any defects; it is not lacking anything in the area of pleasure. Any other relationship, any other condition, lacks something in the area of happiness. It is for this reason that we take up different engagements all the time, switching from one “pleasurable” activity to another. The ultimate relationship, the connection between the living entity and God, is the one condition that trumps all others.
Not all systems of religion describe this condition or even acknowledge its existence. Even many spiritual disciplines emanating from the Vedas fail to acknowledge the existence of a personal aspect to God, or a God with a transcendental form. Expounders of these faiths take the Supreme Absolute Truth to be formless, thus their ultimate conclusion is that the living entities are meant to merge into an energy known as Brahman. Brahman is certainly God, but according to expert opinion, it is simply the glaring effulgence emanating from the body of the original Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna. Understanding Brahman is still a legitimate spiritual discipline, especially considering that those who choose this path are unable to conceive of God’s original form. They are either too distraught in their material condition or are simply looking for the negation of all activity. This desire is facilitated through the merging of the soul into Brahman.
“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.5)
There are other spiritual disciplines that simply look to God as an order supplier, a person who provides for the living entity’s needs and wants. “Simply love God and go about your business. At the end of life, you will go to heaven.” This mindset is incomplete in the sense that if a person has a desire to enjoy their senses, God surely wouldn’t remove them from such a position. Under this model, the Supreme Lord would have to be quite unkind. As we all know, we can never force anyone else to love us. This holds true with God as well, so He would never think of taking us back to His supreme abode if we would rather remain in the company of our friends, family, countrymen, and other associates. Yet even this view of God as an order supplier is considered a legitimate spiritual discipline since it acknowledges the existence of a Supreme Lord.
Regardless of their faith or geographic location, pure devotees of the Supreme Spirit can be found everywhere. Vedic information, the highest form of knowledge, tells us that the individual spirit souls, the living entities residing in the material world, were all originally lovers of God. Therefore every single person, regardless of what they deem to be the ultimate conclusion in life, is a devotee at heart. A pure devotee is one who wants to serve God without any motive for personal gain. This personal gain can involve ascension to the heavenly planets, the removal of distress, the acquisition of mystic powers, or the merging into an impersonal energy. Since this definition of a pure devotee has nothing to do with a person’s religious faith, it stands to reason that there are countless pure devotees who are just waiting to serve God. Yet they may be unaware of the highest conclusion, the topmost spiritual discipline that exists. Therefore it is up to those who are constantly occupied in this sublime engagement to help other sincere souls rekindle their loving relationship with the Supreme Lord.
The Vedas tell us that the more accurate term to describe religion is “dharma”. Dharma relates to an occupational duty, which is based on the true essence of something. Since the essential characteristic of the spirit soul is its intimate relationship with God, dharma is that discipline which aims to keep the living entity always connected with Him. Dharma is the essence of something, so when applied to different areas, it can take the shape of rules and regulations, the set of standard prescriptions aimed at maintaining the essential characteristic. For example, building a house in the proper way represents adherence to a specific dharma. The recommendations and regulations aimed at helping a person play a musical instrument correctly can be thought of as the dharma for that particular discipline. In this way, we see that there can be many dharmas depending on the specific field of interest.
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.66)
The greatest field of interest is that which encompasses all other fields. The only field that fits this definition is spirituality, or more accurately, that discipline pertaining to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In the famous Bhagavad-gita, the Song of God delivered by Krishna Himself, the final instruction given to Arjuna, Krishna’s cousin and dear disciple, is that he should abandon all varieties of religion, or dharmas, and simply surrender unto the Lord. Krishna is the sum and substance of all religious systems; He is the ultimate object of pleasure. The highest engagement for the living entity is to take up His service.
How do we convince people from different faiths, those who are following spiritual disciplines the equivalent of second and third grade educations, to take up the sublime engagement of devotional service, which represents the ascension to the topmost platform of spiritual knowledge? The Vaishnavas, devotees of Vishnu or Krishna, are certainly on the highest level of understanding. They are the PhD scholars of religion, for they spend all their time serving the Lord without motive. As a result, they tend to view the expounders of other spiritual disciplines, i.e. those who posit ultimate conclusions which fall short of devotional service, as intellectual lightweights. Vedic wisdom is all-encompassing, meaning that someone who reads and thoroughly understands a text like the Shrimad Bhagavatam will be able to understand all other philosophies and religious teachings that have ever existed, currently exist, or will ever exist in the future. Yet even though pure devotees are armed with this knowledge and the understanding that other systems are inferior, they don’t look down at their fellow man. Due to their kind mercy, the Vaishnavas view the intellectual lightweights as ideal candidates for taking up bhakti-yoga.
For the people of this age, there is only one religious process recommended. This process is the chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and it was inaugurated by Lord Chaitanya, a preacher incarnation of Krishna who appeared on earth some five hundred years ago. Lord Chaitanya wants the whole world to unite under this mantra, the spiritual calling for our time. This chanting process is the most effective method of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Any person, in any country, of any religious persuasion, can repeat this sacred formula and have all their wishes and dreams fulfilled. Krishna is non-different from His name. The name is simply the transcendental sound representation of the original form of Godhead. Therefore this audible form can incarnate; it can appear in any part of the world and serve as the means of deliverance for the suffering conditioned souls. Through chanting, become a devotee of Krishna and immediately rise to the highest platform of knowledge. This simple path to salvation is the gift to the people of this age, and we should not be so unkind as to not accept it.