“On any platform of activities, the principle of sense gratification is there. But on the spiritual platform, sense gratification is for the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, whereas on the material platform it is for the performer.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 29)
The term “Mayavada” is thrown around quite often by Vaishnava preachers and those who have an utter distaste for any philosophy that treats individual souls and God as equals. Not only does the Mayavada term describe those who believe in a formless God, or an Absolute Truth which lacks an eternal and transcendental form, but it also applies to any person who views any entity besides God as the ultimate enjoyer. For these reasons, it is not surprising to see the words “Mayavada” and “Mayavadi” invoked quite often. Yet this term only represents the negative side of things, the wrong way to go about viewing spiritual life. The other side of the equation is the positive activity; those guidelines and beliefs that enable one to practice religion the proper way. Though these activities can take on different sizes and shapes, they share a commonality in that the ultimate enjoyer is taken to be Lord Krishna, or God. When we stop looking at ourselves and our fellow man as the ultimate enjoyers, and instead shift this designation to the Supreme Lord, we can go about practicing real religion, the religion of love.
To paint a clearer picture of the issue, let’s analyze how many of us go about our daily lives, taking into account some of the primary activities that we take up and which ones we deem to be the most important. To understand the different philosophies and perceived occupational duties of the world, both theistic and atheistic, we can spend time studying all the faiths that have ever existed and what their ultimate conclusions are. Luckily for us, the Shrimad Bhagavatam, the crown jewel of the Vedic literatures, gives us all the information we need regarding any type of philosophy or religious tradition. A religion is merely a philosophy which describes the ultimate conclusion or the ultimate object of worship in life. In this regard, even atheism can be classified as a religion, for the adherents take man, nature, or chemicals to be the supreme controllers. Aside from the issue of an ultimate controller, or a “God”, the more important aspect to religion relates to enjoyment and service. We may or may not believe in God, but how we act on our beliefs is what really counts. For example, we can pledge allegiance to the flag of a specific nation, but this patriotism doesn’t really take shape until we are called to defend our country in one way or another. In a similar manner, we can go through the various rites and rituals of a particular faith, but our true feelings are exhibited by how we go about our lives. Our consciousness and who we identify as the primary object of worship are what really determine our faith and allegiance.
“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)
Under Vedic terminology, most everyone in the world would be described as a karmi. Karma refers to any activity which leads to the development of the outer covering of the soul. This covering, which is composed of various material elements, is constantly going through changes, with the activities and desires of the living entity acting as the catalyst. Karma is generally seen in the light of positive and negative consequences to action, but more specifically, it refers to the development of the material body of the soul. Whether this development is favorable or unfavorable is dependent on the viewpoint of the observer. The real issue lies with the strong attachment that remains between the soul and its outer covering. Since karma leads to the development of the material body, there must be an activity which can stop this development. In this regard, there are two options, two different ways to halt this development. The difference between the two paths relates to enjoyment.
In Vedic terminology, jnana describes the acquisition of knowledge. Since jnana has nothing to do with the development of the body, it is seen as the polar opposite of karma. Jnana is a mental exercise, an activity of the subtle body consisting of mind, intelligence, and ego. The pursuit of knowledge can focus on different subjects, but on the highest level it deals with the difference between matter and spirit, body and soul. Through acquiring such knowledge, the soul can be liberated from the cycle of birth and death, thus freeing itself from accepting future bodies.
Jnana and karma actually share one thing in common. They both view the individual as the ultimate enjoyer, the entity which needs pleasing the most. It is for this reason that the Vaishnava seers, those possessing a clear vision acquired through submissive service offered to their guru and the Supreme Lord, view any spiritual discipline, or any religious tradition, which functions only off of karma and jnana to be a Mayavada-like philosophy. The term Mayavada comes from two words: maya and vada. Vada means a conclusion and maya refers to that which is not. Since maya refers to spirituality, it means that which is not God. Any person whose ultimate conclusion is that everything in this world is not God, including God’s words, teachings, and activities, is considered a Mayavadi. Generally the term is applied to those who view Brahman, the formless feature of the Absolute Truth, as the only reality, with everything else in the world being maya. At the same time, those who view themselves as the ultimate enjoyers, which the aforementioned philosophers certainly do, can also be considered Mayavadis, for their ultimate conclusion is that God is not important. If the individual living entity, who is so miniscule and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, is taken as the ultimate enjoyer, then naturally God’s influence is diminished. When God is neglected, the resulting conclusion cannot be classified as anything but Mayavada.
What does this concept of the “ultimate enjoyer” mean? The karmis best illustrate the significance of this term. Let’s say, for example, that a person visits a house of worship at least once a week, be it a church, synagogue, or temple. They go through all the perfunctory rules and regulations, uttering prayers when needed and rising and kneeling at the appropriate times. During the rest of the week, however, they focus completely on satisfying their own senses or the senses of others. They spend their days catering to their dog, taking it for walks, and bowing down to pick up whatever bodily waste it is kind enough to leave on the sidewalks. When this person is not catering to their pets, they’re paying careful attention to their husband or wife. Whatever the spouse wants is what the person will do, for keeping their beloved happy is the primary objective. Husbands have summarized the secret to success in marriage into one simple phrase: “If she ain’t happy, you ain’t happy.” This same principle can be applied to other areas of life such as school, work, or any place where we are interacting with our fellow man.
Though the objects of affection may vary, the enjoyer is still the individual. Even if we are opening hospitals, feeding the poor, or giving in charity, sense gratification is still there. We are either satisfying our own senses through activities such as eating, intoxication, gambling, and sex life, or we are trying to satisfy the same senses of others. Regardless, the individual is still the object of worship, the supreme enjoyer if you will. The jnanis – those who take to the acquisition of knowledge – are similarly viewing the individual soul as the entity which needs to be pleased. The perfection of jnana-yoga is achieved when the soul merges into Brahman, a condition which leads to the loss of individuality. By merging into Brahman, the Absolute Truth, the individual frees themselves of suffering.
So what other choice do we have? What other kind of activity can we take to? The Vaishnava seers, the purified souls, take to activity which is known as bhakti. While jnana and karma see an individual other than God as the supreme enjoyer, bhakti does not make the same mistake. Bhakti can involve activities which on the surface appear similar to jnana and karma, except that the object of enjoyment is different. Bhakti means love or devotion, and when directed at the Supreme Lord, it is known as bhagavad-bhakti. The collective discipline which aims to satisfy God’s senses is known as devotional service. While this sublime engagement can comprise of many activities, the most effective for this age 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”.
This simple chanting process perfectly illustrates the difference between karma and bhakti. The karmi similarly chants, except that they are aiming to please their own senses or those of others. One may sing a nice song to themselves or take to the stage and sing in front of thousands of adoring fans. The bhakta also takes to chanting, but the subject matter is transcendental. The most complete feature of the Supreme Lord is that of Bhagavan, the Personality of Godhead possessing every opulence imaginable to the fullest degree. Bhagavan’s power lies not only in His spiritual form, but also in the transcendental sound vibrations used to address Him. Therefore, by reciting the Lord’s name in a loving way, the adherent, the purified devotee, takes to pleasing the Supreme Lord’s senses. Any activity can be classified as bhakti if it follows this formula, that of aiming to please Bhagavan.
The greatest impediment towards advancement in spiritual life is the mindset of “I am God”. This seems silly on the surface, because who would be foolish enough to think that they are God? Aside from the fact that many spiritual leaders have openly boasted of this attribute in public, anyone who views the individual as the ultimate enjoyer adopts a similar mentality. This means that all of us think of ourselves as God by default. This is the true meaning behind being born ignorant. Intelligence is acquired through experience and the instructions offered by others, but this knowledge is meaningless unless and until we shed the “I am God” mentality. Even the jnanis, those spiritualists who take to connecting with Brahman, fail to shed this false identity. They take to the mindset of aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman.” But since they view Brahman as the ultimate feature of the Lord, they essentially take themselves to be God.
The correct translation of aham brahmasmi is “I am a spirit soul, part and parcel of Brahman.” An easier way to understand this is to adopt the mindset of “God is me”, which is more accurate than “I am God”. As fragmental sparks emanating from the original heat, the individual spirit souls taken collectively can be included in the definition of God. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that the individuals are the Supreme Lord, but rather they are meant to be intimately connected with Him. If the Supreme Lord is satisfied, the individuals become satisfied as well. This is the secret to bhakti-yoga. Through satisfying the senses of Krishna, the transcendental senses of the individual are also satisfied.
Everyone should strive to practice the religion of love. This discipline is not the exclusive property of any group of people. Any person, in any country, and at any age, can practice bhakti-yoga, and especially the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. Of all the various prescriptions provided for the aspiring transcendentalists of this age, none is more powerful than the constant recitation of the transcendent Lord’s names. This chanting satisfies not only Krishna, but all of His great devotees as well, including the bhakta doing the chanting. The same can’t be said of any other activity, be it of the religious or non-religious variety. Bhakti is the purification of all activity, so it is our primary duty to take to it.