“Some look on the soul as amazing, some describe him as amazing, and some hear of him as amazing, while others, even after hearing about him, cannot understand him at all.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.29)
The Bhagavad-gita, a complete synopsis on Vedic philosophy and instruction, provides insight into the presence of the soul, its relationship to the Supreme Living Entity, and the regulated and prescribed activities that are derived from such a relationship. Since these activities are of the divine nature, they serve to provide permanent happiness to anyone who adopts them, regardless of their disposition, belief system, or current level of happiness. Rather, one’s belief or non-belief in the presence of the soul has no bearing on the results that are achieved by the practice of this most sublime engagement. Through careful study of the major philosophies that have existed since the beginning of time, and the recommended activities derived from such beliefs, we can see that bhakti-yoga, or acts of devotion to the divine, serve to provide happiness to even the greatest of non-believers.
Vedic information states that human beings can be generally classified into one of two categories: suras and asuras. Suras are believers in God, those who make a good-faith attempt at serving and loving the Lord. Asuras are considered miscreants, for they hold steadfast to their belief in the supremacy of man and the nonexistence of a Supreme Entity. Since everyone adopts a certain way of life, even the asuras branch out into sub-religions and systems of activity which sometimes mask their non-belief in a God. Yet even with all the various philosophies that are concocted, the general belief systems of the asuras can be grouped into one of two categories: material acquisition and material annihilation. Material acquisition further breaks down into two more categories: sense gratification for the individual and sense gratification for others, i.e. altruism.
For a detailed analysis of these different philosophies, one can consult the many books authored by the exalted Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, one of the most famous Vaishnava saints of recent times. He spent much time and effort dissecting and picking apart the most prominent theistic and atheistic philosophies that have ever existed, while at the same time establishing the supremacy of the sublime engagement of devotional service to the Supreme Personal Godhead. For the asuras, the materialists who don’t believe in a God, the commonly held belief is that there is no soul. Matter is the root cause of everything; after death, the existence of the individual ends. Therefore the ultimate objective of life is to enjoy as much as possible. Some believe that this enjoyment should be sought out by any means necessary. “Lie, cheat, steal, and do whatever is required to find enjoyment. After all, you only live once, so you might as well make the most of it.”
Believers in such a system don’t have any conception of a system of fairness such as karma. Rather, they think all actions and reactions occur on their own, without a central controller. There are others, however, who do believe in karma, but don’t necessarily understand who administers it or why it exists in the first place. Therefore they adopt a mindset similar to that of the gross materialists, except that they seek to satisfy their senses within the bounds of nature’s laws. “Do whatever you can to satisfy your interests, but make sure that you don’t take any action that will harm you in the future. Be mindful of the reactions to your work.”
Then there are those who take to an approach which is deemed unselfish. They believe the ultimate aim in life is to please as many other people as possible by enabling them to seek out sense enjoyment. Since the intended beneficiary of such work is not the individual performing the action, the discipline is deemed to be an unselfish one. Yet since the ultimate objective is to satisfy one’s own concerns of pity and the lamentation over the condition of others, the actions adopted, be they charity or philanthropy, are most certainly selfish.
Then there are those who believe in the annihilation of activity. They take material nature to be a miserable place, one where sense enjoyment actually serves as the cause of future pain and heartache. Therefore the ultimate objective in life is to cease all activity and thus cut off the root of misery. Since the end-goal is again that of a palatable condition, a state of being where the senses are allowed to seek enjoyment through the absence of pressure, pain, and discomfort, the philosophy can be considered a selfish one. Moreover, since the presence of the soul, the ultimate driver of activity, is ignored, the philosophy must be considered as one belonging to the asura class.
Among the suras, the presence of the soul is generally acknowledged. This soul is seen as the guiding force behind all activity; a fact evidenced by the events of birth and death. At the time of birth, the soul is injected into a tiny life form, thus causing it to grow. The life form grows for a certain time, performs activities, leaves some byproducts, and then ultimately dwindles. The annihilation of the living entity comes at the time of death. During this time, the material elements generally remain as they were, with the only difference being the exit of the soul from the body. Since matter existed before and after the duration of the soul’s presence within said matter, the soul must be taken as the superior entity. The soul is the guiding force in all life forms and also the cause of the resulting actions taken by such forms.
Acknowledging the presence of the soul is only the beginning of spiritual realization. One must take the necessary steps to understand why the soul continually enters and exits various forms of bodies. Vedic philosophy, which is so eloquently explained by Lord Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in the Bhagavad-gita, states that the soul has a relationship with the Supreme Divine Entity. The exact name for this divine controller can vary based on time, circumstance, and the intelligence level of the people in society at large, but the entity itself never changes. In the Vedic tradition, the Supreme Entity is given various names, which are based on its various forms, activities, and qualities. Of all the forms of the divine, the original is known as Bhagavan Shri Krishna.
Bhagavan is a Sanskrit word which describes an entity that possesses every opulence imaginable to the fullest extent and at the same time. This designation is important because there is no living entity in the fallible material world who could ever meet such a requirement. Granted, those exalted suras, the purified devotees, since they connect with Bhagavan at all times, can also be referred to as Bhagavan. This should make sense because if the Supreme Form of Godhead is considered the most fortunate entity in the world, how much more fortunate is the surrendered soul who remains in His association at all times? Just as the wife assumes the last name of the husband at the time of marriage, the purified living entity acquires the title of Bhagavan through their faithful and loving service to the Supreme.
Krishna is a Sanskrit word which means all-attractive. This gets us to the heart of the issue. The soul is indeed very powerful and the driving force behind the activities of every living entity. Yet matter belongs to an inferior nature and can thus never give the soul the satisfaction it desires. This happiness can only come through connecting with the most attractive of souls, the Supreme Entity known as Krishna. Therefore the ultimate conclusion is that the individual soul is part and parcel of the Supreme Soul. Though a part of the infinitely powerful Supreme Godhead, the individual soul is still separate from Him. Since the soul is separate from God, there must be an ideal relationship that can be derived from this disposition.
That relationship is one that involves Krishna-prema, or transcendental love. This love is evoked through acts of devotion, steady action which keeps one’s consciousness always fixed on Krishna, or God. The activities that enable one to maintain this consciousness are collectively known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. These activities can actually be of any variety, often appearing similar to those adopted by the gross materialists, do-gooders, and annihilationists. Yet it is the object of worship, the identification of the ultimate enjoyer, which differs in bhakti-yoga. Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura actually gives a very nice definition of bhakti. He states that bhakti is simply the purified name for karma. When activities in karma stop going by the name of karma, they can be labeled as bhakti. The quintessential activity of bhakti-yoga 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 chanting is similar to the material activity of singing songs to oneself, but the objective is different. This chanting is directed not at another fallible living entity or even the self, but rather to the original divine entity, the ultimate reservoir of pleasure. As the Supreme Enjoyer, Krishna acts as the beneficiary of all activity, the one person worthy of all our efforts and hard work.
Acts of love and devotion to God are so potent that they actually provide happiness to even those who don’t believe in God. Even after hearing of the soul, its constitutional position, and its relationship to Krishna, many asuras will remain steadfast to their belief that matter is supreme. They will continue their pursuit of material enjoyment, even though these pursuits always lead to misery. If the accumulation of sense objects was the ultimate objective of life, every living entity would achieve happiness very early on in life. Upon taking birth, the young child is completely ignorant of spiritual matters. Their inclination is to play all day, eat as much as they want, and go to sleep whenever they feel like it. Yet parents closely safeguard their children from such uncontrolled behavior. This is done for the child’s benefit, for it is a well-known fact that unregulated sense gratification during the childhood years can only lead to trouble later on in life. A spoiled child will be less likely to acquire intelligence, hold down a decent job, or be able to support itself.
This alone should debunk the idea of sense gratification being the ultimate aim. Yet let’s look at it from another angle. The four primary sinful activities of material life are meat-eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. The Vedas demark these four activities over all others as the most sinful due to the harm they inflict on the future fortunes of the conditioned soul. Yet for the gross materialists, those who don’t believe in the presence of the soul, these activities are seen as the pinnacle of material enjoyment. So what results from taking up these activities in an unregulated manner? Are people better off? Are they happier? Quite the contrary actually, as those who adopt these activities as their primary way of life are often the most unhappy. Meat eaters suffer from various diseases, including obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Intoxication leads to death on the highways, disease of the liver, and loss of brain cells. Gambling leads to loss of money, agitation of the mind, and dishonesty in dealings. Illicit sex life is probably the most detrimental. Unregulated sex life is the single greatest cause of poverty around the world. Those who have to raise children before they are financially stable will have problems for the rest of their lives. Sex life is also very costly, for maintaining a significant other is not an easy thing. Based on these facts alone, we see that the activities derived from the conclusion of the gross materialists most certainly don’t aid in providing the enjoyment that is seen as the ultimate objective in life.
What about the do-gooders, those who take unselfishness to be the ultimate aim of life? The same problems exist, for in order to help another person enjoy their senses, they must be given facility to take up the same sinful activities. If sinful activities lead to misery for me, they certainly will also have the same negative effects on those I try to help. The argument invoked by the unselfish will be that every person requires a minimum amount of sense gratification in order to be happy. Therefore mankind should seek to “level the playing field”, so to speak. This argument is debunked by the mere fact that the persons offering the charity already enjoy a decent level of sense gratification. If a modicum amount of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending were enough to provide happiness, no one would ever need to take to unselfishness. After all, the unselfish behavior is based off the selfish desire to feel good about helping others. If one felt good by having decent food, clothing, and shelter, there would be no need to increase that happiness by taking to charity and philanthropy.
What about the annihilationists/voidists? If sinful activity causes harm and misery, then surely the opposite must be the secret to enjoyment. To uncover the flaw of this mindset, let us take a simple example of something that is seen as material enjoyment. The cruise vacation is deemed one of the more enjoyable experiences by many. You get aboard a giant boat that is filled with every amenity imaginable. Food, drink, and entertainment are available around the clock, all within walking distance. Not only are these enjoyments nearby, but the setting is unmatched, for one is on a luxury boat that has a great view of the ocean. This is only part of the vacation. The boat also docks in various exotic destinations, islands which themselves offer many enjoyable activities. The cruise is the ultimate vacation, so who wouldn’t like it?
But there are those who view such a vacation as a torture trap. “What if I don’t want to stuff my face all day and drink alcohol all the time? What if I don’t care about seeing the ocean or a beach? I’d rather just enjoy my time on land. I would hate to go on one of these trips.” In this way, we see that simple annihilation cannot be the ultimate objective in life since some people don’t derive any pleasure from it. To the enjoyers of nature, renunciation from activity seems quite unfitting and devoid of pleasure. What is enjoyable to one person is not to another, and vice versa. Thus the mind is always toggling between accepting and rejecting things.
All of this information leads us to the secret behind happiness. Happiness is a state of mind, a situation where thoughts, worries, ideas, and plans are in a state of peace and balance. Since happiness is derived from this mental condition, no amount of material enjoyment, or lack thereof, can be the root cause behind peace and tranquility. Happiness results from controlling the mind. Devotional service is seen as the only universal activity because it seeks to change one’s consciousness. This consciousness is merely a representation of the state of the mind. If one’s consciousness remains purified, they will always be in a happy state, regardless of their level of material enjoyment or renunciation.
“Just fix your mind upon Me, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and engage all your intelligence in Me. Thus you will live in Me always, without a doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 12.8)
Since bhakti-yoga purifies one’s consciousness, it is applicable to every single person, regardless of their belief system. This means that the happiness the gross materialists and the renunciates are so desperately seeking can actually be achieved through bhakti-yoga. This fact alone speaks to the supremacy of the divine engagement. To devotees, such truths aren’t surprising to see because anything directly related to God will surely be superior. The activities derived from the conclusions of the atheists and material enjoyers don’t even succeed in achieving their stated goals. This alone invalidates their philosophies. The activities derived from the ideal loving relationship with God are so sublime that they give enjoyment to every single person. Therefore, all of us, regardless of our belief system, should take up this engagement and hold on to it for dear life. This is the only path to happiness, both in this world and the next.