“O lotus-eyed Lord, although nondevotees who accept severe austerities and penances to achieve the highest position may think themselves liberated, their intelligence is impure. They fall down from their position of imagined superiority because they have no regard for Your lotus feet.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 10.2.32)
Milton Friedman, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the economics field in recent times, preached heavily on the superiority of liberty and free markets over any other system of resource allocation. Since the beginning of time, mankind has tried to organize its affairs in a manner that is deemed fair, with each person’s definition for such fairness being different. Friedman’s belief in the free market enterprise systems stems from the fact that in such a system, no exchange can take place without benefit to both parties. While this is most certainly true in an economic sense, the nature of the exchange actually sheds light on the supremacy of one particular spiritual discipline. With the varying systems of religion and irreligion that exist, only one is superior. This system stands above all others because it is the only one that involves two distinct entities entering into a voluntary exchange, wherein both parties are benefitted. This spiritual discipline is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service.
First let’s test Friedman’s assertion for validity. The free market system has nothing to do with cost or payments made to enter into the system. The word “free” in free market deals with freedom, a condition where access to resources, both the selling and buying of, is unrestricted for the most part. The system does require government oversight in regards to force and coercion. A free market system is one where goods and services are exchanged peaceably and voluntarily, with respect given to property rights and the rule of law. Government’s role in such a system is minimal, with attention focused on enforcing the sanctity of contracts, agreements, and property rights. In addition, if third parties who are not involved in such transactions are affected, the government is required to play a role. Though this system has been in existence since the beginning of time, notable scholars such as Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Frederic Bastiat, and Friedrich Hayek have taken great time to describe it, ascribing various names to the system such as capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism, free markets, and classic liberalism.
While the free market system certainly makes sense and proves best at allowing the most people the opportunity to advance in a material sense, there have been many who have opposed it. The primary gripe is that there are winners and losers, with the winners being able to amass much wealth at the expense of the losers. In addition, the choices made by the free participants in such a system are not always liked by other groups. In a free market, the participants get what they want, as opposed to what a group of individuals thinks they should want. To alleviate the appearance of this unfairness, various other systems have cropped into existence. In reality, the system described by Friedman and others is a natural one, something that doesn’t have to be implemented or instituted. Any other system, save the free market, is one that is unnatural and prone to many more defects. Systems such as communism, socialism, Keynesian economics, fascism, and others have sought to impose fairness through the force of government. The goal of such systems is quite straightforward: “There are too many ‘have nots’ and not enough ‘haves’. By taking from the wealthy, who can afford to pay their fair share, we can redistribute wealth to those who need it.”
While such a system seems well intentioned and possessing of potential for success, the results are usually unpalatable. The system falls to pieces right away with the issue of fairness. One person’s view of what’s fair is completely different from another person’s view. After all, one person who takes great effort to start and run a successful business certainly doesn’t think it’s fair to have their money taken and given to someone who either isn’t willing to work or who doesn’t have the desire to run a business. The other issue relates to how the fairness is implemented. Since only a free market system involves completely voluntary exchanges, any other system must use coercion and force to implement its ideal situation. This naturally leads to resentment and anger from those who are forced into exchanges that they normally wouldn’t be willing to make. At the same time, the potential for corruption increases, as now government leaders and bureaucrats have all the power in deciding who wins and who loses. In a free market system, the consumers and the product manufacturer decide their own fate. In any other system of economics, not only do the government leaders seek to punish various entities for their success, but successful enterprises are also able to lobby and pay off government leaders in hopes that they will favor their particular business. This practice is commonplace around the world, especially in America. Large companies who are on the verge of bankruptcy often get bailed out by government handouts, which are funded by taxes paid by the average citizen. Since the citizen didn’t voluntarily agree to bail these companies out, the exchanges cannot be considered free.
"The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit." (Milton Friedman)
While the free market system surely isn’t a perfect one, Milton Friedman would argue that no other system in the course of human history has done more to help the average man. The secret to its success lies with the issue of benefits. In a free and voluntary exchange, both parties must be benefitted. In no other system do the exchanges bear such properties. We can look to any purchase of a good or service to see this principle in action. When we go to the gas station to fill our cars up with gasoline, we are entering into a voluntary agreement with the station managers. No one is forcing us to patronize a particular station, nor is the station owner obligated to sell us his gasoline. We enter into an agreement wherein we part with our possessions in the form of hard-earned money, and in return we get a set amount of gasoline. We may not be happy with the price that we are paying, and we may be dissatisfied with the quality of the gasoline, but nevertheless we are still benefitted.
Where is the benefit? Now that we have gas in the car, we can travel to where we are going. We can drive to work, school, or to a friend or family member’s home. Without gasoline, it would be much more difficult to earn a living. Thus we decided that instead of living with such a difficulty, we would rather pay money for gasoline. Regardless of our satisfaction or lack thereof with our purchase, there is no doubt that we were benefitted in the end. Otherwise, we would never have entered into the agreement. There was no force applied, nor was there any threat of bodily injury or death should we have chosen to not purchase the gasoline.
The same principle applies to the owner of the gas station. Surely, he would rather charge more for his gasoline, but he knows that at a higher price, he wouldn’t sell as much. He would also be happier if we were to step inside his store and purchase other items such as soda and snacks. These items have a higher markup, so they provide more profit to the shop owner. Regardless, the station owner is still benefitted simply by our purchase of his gasoline. If this weren’t the case, he wouldn’t sell it to us. He would close up shop, or get rid of his gas pumps. He knows that by our buying gasoline, he will earn some profit and that we will likely return in the future. If we return, maybe other customers will return as well, thus leaving the opportunity for future profits intact.
“Anyone who quits his body, at the end of life, remembering Me, attains immediately to My nature; and there is no doubt of this.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.5)
The collective market system involves such exchanges on smaller and even grander scales. Both parties in these exchanges are benefitted because there is freedom involved. There is no other reason for the exchange to be entered into other than the benefits received. This fact can go a long way towards helping us achieve the ultimate aim in life, that of becoming spiritually aware at the time of death. Upon assuming a body composed of the various material elements, the purified spirit soul becomes conditioned. The first symptom of this conditioning lies in the area of identification. Through the medium of the eyes, we start to identify with our body, which is a lump of matter that is ever changing. Identifying with something that gets created, maintained, and destroyed is quite silly, yet this is the effect of becoming conditioned. Moreover, upon assuming this false identification, we take to acts of sense gratification. One of the reasons governments go through so many changes in leadership is that the satisfaction provided by their style of governance is nonexistent. While the free market system is certainly superior to others in the allocation of resources, it is still simply a part of material life. It is not even intended to be a style of government, but rather a way for the necessities of life to be produced and distributed.
“Everywhere are His hands and legs, His eyes and faces, and He hears everything. In this way the Supersoul exists.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 13.14)
If sense gratification, which includes economic development, isn’t the ultimate objective in life, then what is? Since our real identity comes from the spirit soul, the true aim in life is to reattach the soul with its life partner. This life partner is actually with the soul right now, but the effects of conditioned life cause the soul to forget about and ignore its presence. This partner is similar in quality to the individual soul, but vastly superior in quantitative powers. This superior soul belongs to the Supreme Lord, the Almighty Divine Being. The Supersoul actually resides within the body of every living entity, something that can’t be said about our individual soul. The Supersoul doesn’t come along for the ride simply for kicks. Rather, our individual soul is meant to connect with the Supersoul because the Supreme Lord, in any of His non-different forms, is the ultimate reservoir of pleasure. Matter brings temporary and fleeting happiness, while God brings permanent pleasure.
There are various systems that have been instituted and tried over the years that help to achieve this aim of connecting the two souls. This connection is known as yoga, so any discipline that aims to reattach the two life partners can also be deemed as yoga. Not all yogas are the same however. Only one is superior, while all others simply serve as stepping stones. The topmost yoga system acquires its stature from the nature of the interaction that takes place. Only in this topmost yoga system is there a benefit to two parties. Upon careful examination of the other yoga systems, or any system in general, we’ll see that the benefit to the two parties in question is absent.
Religion can be defined as any person’s or group of people’s ultimate conclusion. Generally this relates to spiritual life, the existence of a God and the steps necessary to reach and serve such a divine figure. Yet other systems which don’t acknowledge a God can also be considered religious in that the concept of a supreme entity still remains. In the general atheistic philosophy, the supreme worshipable object is the individual. “Eat, sleep, drink, and be merry. Do whatever it takes to be happy, for life begins and ends with this body. There is no soul and there is no afterlife, so you might as well enjoy now.” This theory is certainly flawed in all respects, beginning with the issue of enjoyment. What one person deems as enjoyable activity another person would see as torturous. Simply enjoying cannot be considered the ultimate aim of life when the path laid out for achieving that enjoyment is not universal. Moreover, many “enjoyable” activities such as intoxication, gambling, and illicit sex can lead to many unpalatable situations and conditions. Therefore the atheists essentially contradict themselves and prove by their own activities the flaw in their objective of enjoyment.
The primary activities followed by most theists in the world actually don’t differ much from the gross materialists. Under this paradigm, a supreme controller is acknowledged, but the ultimate aim in life is still taken to be personal enjoyment through any and all activities. As long as the acknowledgement of a God is there, then every activity is deemed to be sanctioned, save for heinous crimes such as murder and theft. The nature of this acknowledgement can also vary; with some taking to attending weekly religious services and others simply going through one or two formal ceremonies in their youth. In both the theist and atheistic systems where fruitive activities and sense enjoyment are taken as the paramount practices in life, the flaw lies in the area of enjoyment. Only the individual is seeking a benefit, and moreover, there is no other spiritual entity that is receiving any benefit. Though the free market economic system brings mutual satisfaction, the benefit received by each party in the exchange is a material one, i.e. something related to the outer covering of the soul. Spiritual life is aimed at advancing the plight of the soul, thus any system which seeks to advance the plight of material senses cannot be considered a spiritual one.
Among those who do acknowledge a Divine Being and the futility of sense gratification, there are differing opinions as to what course of action should be taken. One of the more famous recommended systems is known as sankhya-yoga or jnana-yoga. Jnana refers to knowledge, so when applied to yoga, it is the system of linking with the Supersoul through intense study. Followers of this system generally take to studying Vedanta philosophy and understanding the differences between matter and spirit. Yet those who take jnana-yoga to be the topmost spiritual practice believe that there is no personal form of Godhead. Rather, they feel that the Supreme Absolute Truth is formless. This Truth is known as Brahman, with every individual living entity being an equal part of it. Thus the ultimate objective becomes the merging of the soul into this energy. This merging brings about an end to the suffering represented by repeated births and deaths.
“When a soul merges with Brahman, neither are benefited.” (Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Shri Krishna Samhita, Conclusion)
Yet again, this system only seeks to benefit one party: the individual. Since Brahman is formless, it cannot have a personality. Without a personality, it cannot experience pleasure or bliss. Therefore when a soul merges into Brahman, there cannot be any benefit provided to Brahman. Actually, there is no benefit provided to the individual either, just a perceived benefit. Material life means always hankering and lamenting, always being subject to the demands of the senses and the forces of nature. Those who take jnana-yoga to be their ultimate religion desperately want an end to the suffering of material life. Yet at the same time, just because there is an absence of suffering doesn’t mean that the resulting condition is pleasurable. This isn’t circular logic or clever word jugglery, but rather a fact. If we are sitting in a quiet room that is at the perfect temperature, we are in an environment which is not miserable. Yet at the same time, there is no pleasure derived in such a situation. The mind is always working and desiring. The Vedantist will argue that the mind simply has to be controlled in such a situation; then it will be in a pleasurable state. Yet the ultimate objective of merging into Brahman means a cessation to thinking. The soul loses its individuality and thus becomes killed in a sense. Such a conditioned cannot be deemed beneficial to either party involved.
The topmost yoga system is known as bhakti. It involves acts of love and devotion directed at the Supreme Lord. While the Supersoul is the localized aspect of the Divine, and Brahman is the all-encompassing impersonal energy representation of the same, there is a more complete representation: the original Personality of Godhead. When people refer to God and worship of Him, they are conceiving of a personality. While many sectarian and sentimentalist movements refuse to acknowledge the form of the Supreme Divine Entity, the Vedas fail to make such a transgression. As the original spiritual discipline of the world, the Vedas go into great detail to describe the original Personality of Godhead’s appearance, attributes, qualities, and expansions. Moreover, the Personality of Godhead acquires names based on these different features. In His original feature, the one that best represents every quality to the fullest degree, the Lord is known as Krishna. Lord Krishna certainly can expand though, for the individual spirit souls have different desires as it relates to association with God. In order to meet each soul’s desire, the Lord takes unlimited personal, direct expansions. The aim of bhakti-yoga is to establish a consciousness whereby one is always thinking of Krishna or one of His direct expansions.
To this end, the most effective activity of bhakti-yoga is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Not only is Krishna God, but He is also the ultimate reservoir of pleasure. Bhakti-yoga is the only system which benefits both the individual soul and the Supreme Soul represented by God. The benefit to the individual is obvious. They are reconnecting with their life partner. The soul is eternal, so the term “life” in this respect refers to spiritual life. Such a life is known as sanatana, one that has no beginning or end. The steps taken to establish and maintain this connection are known as dharma, or one’s occupational duty. Thus the Vedas describe the term religion as sanatana-dharma; those principles and ideals that keep the individual soul in constant connection with the Supreme.
Krishna is benefitted by our performance of bhakti-yoga because it allows Him to reclaim His lost sons and daughters. Since the individual souls are the same in quality as Krishna, they have complete independence in desires. If they want to be separated from the Lord, they are given every facility to keep that separation maintained. In the spiritual world, the liberated souls are in constant association with Krishna, so there is a good time had by all. Through the practice of bhakti-yoga, which culminates with the mind focusing on Krishna at the time of death, the conditioned soul immediately becomes liberated and returns to the spiritual realm for all of eternity. No other system provides such a benediction. Therefore any other religious system save bhakti-yoga must be considered inferior. Only by taking to bhakti-yoga, wherein we always remember Krishna, can we allow the free and voluntary exchange of loving emotions between the Supreme Lord and ourselves to continue uninterrupted.