“Indeed, human life begins when religion begins. Eating, sleeping, fearing, and mating are the four principles of animal life. These are common both to animals and to human beings. But religion is the extra function of the human being. Without religion, human life is no better than animal life.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.1.2 Purport)
The true benefit of human life lies in the area of intelligence. The key distinction between the animal species and the human being is that man has the potential to acquire intelligence that far surpasses that of any other species’. Yet if this potential is not realized, the valuable human form of life goes to waste. Therefore it is vital that we take the necessary steps to acquire the right type of knowledge through hearing from the right source. This knowledge leads to the maximum realization of intelligence, a condition which results in the maximum benefit in the afterlife.
What separates the exercise of spirituality from any other endeavor is that it is forward thinking. In other pursuits, there is an end-goal, a specific time when our work will be completed. While this time may be one week into the future or even one hundred years, the time span is relatively small in the grand scheme of things. Spirituality deals with the plight of the soul – a soul which is ever-existing, unchangeable, and undying. In the Bhagavad-gita, the famous discourse on spirituality given by the great master Himself, Lord Krishna, we learn that the soul never takes birth, nor does it ever die. After each life is over – when a living entity is deemed dead- the soul remains unchanged. The future destination of the soul is the area of concern for the discipline of spirituality. Since the soul exists forever, the destination it can reach can also exist eternally.
What does this mean exactly? The conditioned individual souls are currently residing in a temporary realm. Similar to how a life form develops from a fetus to a child and then to an adult, the world we live in goes through cycles of creation and destruction. Since there are set times for the birth and death of the universe, the realm must be considered a temporary place. Yet this doesn’t square with the idea of the eternal soul. Therefore we can deduce that there must be a more permanent home for the soul, a place where it can remain forever. This is precisely the area of concern for spirituality, or at least it should be.
“O best among the Bharatas [Arjuna], four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me—the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.16)
Can spirituality be practiced incorrectly? As we all know, not every religious system or leader is the same. People take to religion for different reasons. For example, one person may have an ultimate objective of cleaning up the environment. They are distraught over the constant pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels, the chopping down of trees, and the overall advancement in technology. While on their own they may be able to convince others of the possibility of an environmental utopia, the message would be much more effective if it was presented through the prism of religion. Therefore such people may take to religion, finding the set of scriptures and beliefs that substantiate their claims about the environment. This example only applies to a select few people, but the principle can be expanded out to pretty much anyone who takes to spirituality. One person is looking for benedictions such as wealth, beauty, and fame, while another is looking for ascension to a heavenly realm where there is a heightened level of sense enjoyment. Another person may be sick and tired of the repetitious nature of life, so they take to religion in the hopes of ending all activity.
“…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)
While there are various religious systems which have different ultimate objectives, the Vedas inform us that the true mission for all spirit souls is to return back to the transcendental realm where God resides in His personal form. This realm is different from the common conception of heaven. The world we live in is generally portrayed in a negative light; it is seen as a temporary and miserable place. Therefore heaven automatically becomes a place where just the opposite situation is seen. With these two polar opposites, what wise person wouldn’t choose heaven over earth? While there are certainly other planets which are considered heavenly, i.e. places where there is a heightened level of enjoyment, any planet that gets created and destroyed must be considered on the same level. The realm of the Personality of Godhead, the person many of us refer to as “God”, is the only place where birth and death of any kind do not occur. Therefore this realm, the place where God resides alongside His liberated associates, is the only permanent home for the soul, the ultimate destination for the seekers of the Truth.
Discovering the return path to this realm is the true mission for all souls residing on earth and any other heavenly or hellish planet. Yet not everyone will realize this goal right away, since not every form of life possesses the same level of intelligence. Vedic information is so nice because it provides both comprehensive and summary level information. On the comprehensive side of things, we are informed that there are 8,400,000 different species in the world, with each specific body type determined by an individual’s qualities and their desire for work. On the summary level side of things, we are informed that the species which mainly take to eating, sleeping, mating, and defending, can be categorized as animals. Out of all of these species, the human being is considered superior due to its level of intelligence.
If an animal focuses its time on eating and sleeping, and at the same time is considered less intelligent than the human being, it must be concluded that the human beings aren’t meant to spend all of their time eating and sleeping. The Vedic seers, the great saints of the past who put the transcendental sound vibrations of the Vedas into written word, inform us that the true benefit of the human form of body lies in the area of intelligence. It is through the development of intelligence, which comes about through experience and the acquisition of knowledge, that the human being realizes that there is more to life than just imitating the animals. Moreover, the ultimate objective is not to simply shift the focus away from animalistic activities. Rather, a higher level of intelligence is meant to benefit the plight of the spirit soul. Only the most intelligent are capable of taking the necessary steps towards realizing the ultimate goal of returning to the imperishable spiritual sky.
It should be noted here that the difference between human beings and any other species really relates to the potential for intelligence. For example, at the time of birth, an infant is less intelligent than many adult-aged animals. A small child cannot walk, talk, or feed itself. It is completely dependent on its parents for these essential activities. On the other side, we have the animals who can eat, sleep, mate, and defend. Even though they have no understanding of God or the existence of a soul, an animal knows how to find food, how to erect a dwelling, how to take rest, and how to defend itself from attackers. The human being is considered superior because, in a mature state, it has the ability to surpass the level of intelligence of the animal’s.
Intelligence is acquired through education, but not all instruction is the same. In a typical university, there are different departments of knowledge which are tailored to the different interests of the students’. One student may take an interest in chemistry, while another focuses on music. While this sort of education certainly has its place and value, the end-result is simply a heightened level of enjoyment in animalistic activities. The brain may be stimulated a little more, but the only tangible result is a more comfortable way of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. While this kind of education essentially keeps a person on a neutral footing with animals as far as intelligence goes, there are other kinds of education which can actually be detrimental. For example, through bad association, taking education from the wrong source, a person can learn how to make bombs, kill innocent people, and even steal from others.
Our true potential for intelligence cannot be realized simply through any form of education. Rather, we must gather the right set of facts, absorbing those vital pieces of information that will help the plight of our soul. In order for this to happen, we must hear from the right source. Our teachers must already possess a heightened level of intelligence, being fully cognizant of the differences between species and the ultimate objective in life. These teachers are known as Vaishnavas, or devotees of Vishnu. God is one, but He has different names and forms based on time and circumstance. In the imperishable spiritual realm, the original form of Godhead, Lord Krishna, resides. In another planetary system in the same realm lives Krishna’s four-armed expansion of Lord Vishnu. Since there is no difference between Vishnu and Krishna, devotees of either are referred to as Vaishnavas.
Whether one refers to the Almighty as Krishna, Vishnu, or some other authorized name, the ultimate objective remains the same; that of returning to the Lord’s spiritual realm. The Vaishnavas possess the highest level of intelligence because they learned the imperishable science of devotional service from their own teachers who were Vaishnavas. If we ascend this chain of teachers all the way to the top, we’ll eventually reach the original source of knowledge: God. The science of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga, is the topmost education, the only discipline worth learning about and taking up. This sublime engagement helps the individual soul realize its true potential, putting the final pieces of the puzzle into place.
What separates bhakti-yoga from any other educational discipline? Devotional service deals exclusively with God. The perfect execution of devotional service also allows a person to acquire all the knowledge they need to be able to eat, sleep, defend, and mate comfortably. The necessities of life are still met, while the highest level of intelligence is acquired. The quintessential act of devotional service 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”.
The animals aren’t able to chant this sacred mantra. They aren’t able to conceive of a God or realize the futility of the pursuit for sense gratification. They can’t understand the concepts of reincarnation and the eternal nature of the soul. Animals aren’t able to comprehend the existence of an imperishable spiritual sky where the level of enjoyment is a million times greater than that experienced in the perishable universe. Only the human being has the ability to understand these higher concepts. Therefore we should immediately take the necessary steps to acquaint ourselves with our best friend, Lord Krishna. An exalted Vaishnava can be approached in person or through consultation with their written and recorded instructions. Regardless of the nature of the interaction, the humble approach must be there on our side. Through adopting the discipline of devotional service, our true potential for intelligence can certainly be realized.