“The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Hari, is the soul and the Supersoul of all living entities. Every living entity is a manifestation of His energy in terms of the living soul and the material body. Therefore the Lord is the most dear, and He is the supreme controller.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.7.49)
While religion usually connotes the idea of spirituality and dedication to a supreme spiritual entity, in reality it is simply whatever a person’s ultimate conclusion is. An ultimate conclusion leads to activities. Since these activities are based on a person’s primary belief system, it can be deduced that said activities are of the topmost importance to the performer. In this way, a person’s faith can be described by their ultimate conclusion. Those who take to fruitive activity, acts which lead to the satisfaction of the senses, both subtle and gross, as the ultimate conclusion in life are known as believers of the karmavada or karma-mimamsa philosophy. Ironically enough, a belief in God or a worship of a divine entity doesn’t necessarily change the conclusion in such a philosophy. In many respects, the divine figure is simply seen as the facilitator of the rewards reaped in the karmavada system. Thus even if there is the presence of a God, if the primary activities one adopts relate to karma, the resulting system is one of atheism. More than a simple order supplier, God is the Supreme Enjoyer, that entity who takes part in the topmost pleasure-giving loving exchanges with the surrendered souls. This exchange can only take place through one system: bhakti-yoga. This system is thus the only bona fide religion.
“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)
Let’s review the various aspects of karmavada to gain a better understanding of the superior nature of bhakti. Karma is generally associated with good and bad results. If we perform pious activities, we’ll accumulate good karma, and if we take to sinful activity, our karma will be bad. A more technical definition of karma is any activity which leads to the development of the material body. The soul is the true identity of the individual, the life force that serves as the spark for all activity. While the soul takes the impetus for actions, the results are doled out by a Supersoul, or Paramatma. This soul belongs to the Supreme Divine Entity, the Almighty Lord. How one can connect with this Supreme Entity will be discussed shortly.
Since we are born into ignorance, not all of us become aware of the presence of the soul and its constitutional position. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, summarize the purpose of life into two basic action items: learn about God and use that knowledge to serve Him through love. Such a practice will benefit the soul, allowing it to transcend karma. Since knowledge of God isn’t easily acquired nor understood, most of us remain on the platform of karma. This means that we take to activity in hopes of gaining some reward. The law of karma stipulates that every action has commensurate reactions. Sometimes the reactions are favorable, while other times they are not. Regardless of our intentions, the reactions, both good and bad, will most certainly come.
The gross materialists, those who have no knowledge or belief in the existence of the soul, often take to karma as a way of life; they don’t believe there is anything higher or more important than the system of action and reaction. From intelligence acquired through experience, such believers gain a basic understanding of cause and effect. They know that if they take to certain activities, they can increase their chances of achieving their goals. The end-goals usually involve some sort of sense gratification. For example, students take to karmic activity in school in hopes of graduating. After graduating, they can hopefully land a nice job and meet the basic demands of the body. While the intentions are certainly noble, the end-result is simply sense gratification. Even something as universally appealing as peace of mind relates to the senses.
School is just one small example, but pretty much any activity in the cause and effect paradigm follows the same pattern. So far, there has been no mention of God or a divine figure in this system. Those who are a little wiser, however, understand that God exists. They take to worshiping Him, or one of His authorized officials known as the demigods, to meet the demands of life. Such adherents most certainly work hard at acquiring the necessary fruits of their labor, but they still take time to worship a divine figure. The exact mode of worship can vary. Some attend a church or a temple on a regular basis. Others take to more formalized worship such as the performance of sacrifice and other rituals. Others take to austerities such as fasting and meditation. The Vedas document many historical incidents where exalted personalities took to such methods and received the benedictions of their choice.
Is there a difference between the person acting in karma without knowledge of God and one who looks for the same goals but through following religion? In reality, there is not. Since the end-goal is sense gratification, either method is essentially the same. Karma works on an absolute platform, which means that the results of action must bear fruit. Whether or not we want such fruits is meaningless. Actions are actions after all, so the laws of nature stipulate that such actions must have consequences. The more important point is that by simply viewing God and His representatives as order suppliers is not enough to be called religious. We already look for others to fulfill so many orders in life, so by viewing God in the same light, we are essentially putting Him on equal footing with ordinary living entities. This certainly cannot be considered a pious mindset or even an intelligent one.
A few examples will help us understand the flaw in the “worship for benefits” system. Currently we look to so many entities as order suppliers. Our parents are the first caretakers. Through kindly adhering to their rules and regulations, we get fed, clothed, and housed during our youth. When we grow a little older, we offer service to our teachers, who in turn provide us an education. In adulthood, we offer service to our employer, who in turn grants us the benediction of a salary. This salary is then used to fulfill even more orders. We pay tribute to the cable and satellite companies by offering them our hard earned money. In exchange, we are rewarded with hundreds upon hundreds of television channels, along with internet service. When we go to the supermarket, we input orders with suppliers and store clerks. They fulfill our orders by giving us products in exchange for our money.
This system is certainly a nice one. We kindly, or even unkindly, approach another entity, offer them some service, and then get rewarded with our wished-for object. Are the karmavada or karma-mimamsa systems any different? If we attend a church or temple service and pray to a divine entity to fulfill our wishes and needs, is this any different than approaching our bosses or parents? The argument may be made that the method of worship, i.e. the inputting of the order, is different when it comes to spiritual matters. We don’t fall to our knees and pray to the supermarket owner to give us fruit. We don’t perform austerities and chant mantras to cajole our bosses into paying us.
Though the services offered during religious functions in the karmavada system seem different than non-religious services, there is actually no difference. Just because the method of tribute is different doesn’t mean that the mode of worship is different. In both systems, the more powerful entity, the person or group being offered service, is seen as the order-supplier. Just because we pray to God instead of sending Him a check doesn’t mean that we are viewing Him any differently. No one really likes their boss. In fact it is quite common for coworkers to get together and make fun of the boss, owner, or CEO of the company. Different coworkers will take a stab at imitating the boss’s voice, speaking patterns, and activities. The employers are almost never happy with the boss, yet they still offer their service. This is because the ultimate objective is to realize the fruits of labor.
So if performing acts of karma in religious life bears a strong similarity to atheism, what constitutes real religion? The Vedas tell us that the title of “God” is not determined by one’s ability to fulfill desires. The Supreme Lord in the Vedic tradition is described as Bhagavan, which means one who possesses all fortunes. Bhagavan’s original form is that of Lord Shri Krishna, whose name means all-attractive. Krishna possesses wealth, beauty, renunciation, fame, knowledge, and strength to the fullest degree and simultaneously. He can most certainly provide any reward that a person may want, but the Lord is not obliged to do so. Moreover, our purpose in life as individual souls is not to simply look for these rewards, which are temporary in nature and providing of flickering happiness.
“When they have thus enjoyed heavenly sense pleasure, they return to this mortal planet again. Thus, through the Vedic principles, they achieve only flickering happiness.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.21)
For the karmavadis, those who take fruitive activity and the results obtained to be the ultimate religion in life, there are the demigods to bestow boons and benedictions. In the famous Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna describes such worshipers as less intelligent, alpa-medhasam. They are described as such because the demigods provide rewards that simply enhance the gratification of the senses. The senses are tied to the body, and the body is ultimately given up at the time of death. The soul, however, is not; it exists forever. The reactions of our work determine the type of body we receive in the future. Even after death, our karma comes with us and determines the circumstances of our next birth.
Since our nature is that of spirit, it would make sense that the ultimate objective in life would be to satisfy the needs of the soul. This is where Krishna comes in. He is the Supreme Spirit, someone who is similar in quality to us, but vastly superior in quantity. Satisfaction for the soul is achieved through intimate association with the Supreme Spirit, union of the soul with the Supersoul. This linking is known as yoga. The goal of human life is to attain perfect yoga, the forging of a permanent bond between the soul and Bhagavan.
If we’re searching after yoga, isn’t that a material benediction? Aren’t the bhakti-yogis simply taking to acts of karma and looking at Krishna as an order supplier? Krishna is the reservoir of pleasure. Bhakti is love or devotion of the purest variety. By taking to acts of bhakti, one becomes free of the reactions of karma. The reactions may still be there, for bhakti often involves fruitive activities, but the consequences are discarded. They have no bearing on the future destination of the soul. The results of actions are essentially burned up and dried out through bhakti. Bhakti is simply the purification of karma.
Krishna should be looked at as our chief worshipable object not for the benedictions He can provide us, but simply because He is worthy of our service. Bhakti-yoga can consist of many activities, but the most effective one for this age is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This chanting is not performed for any personal benefit. It surely brings about peace of mind and contentedness, but these are just pleasant side effects. The real aim of this chanting is to remain connected with Krishna through yoga. Chanting represents an exchange that benefits both parties involved. Lord Krishna, as the Supreme Lord, is certainly capable of deriving pleasure. He enjoys the company of His liberated associates, those who take the Lord’s satisfaction to be their only religion. We can become one of these associates should we sincerely take to bhakti.
Ironically enough, by acting selflessly for the Supreme Lord’s satisfaction, all the rewards sought out by the karmavadis are automatically acquired. This means that even the karmavadis, those who refuse to acknowledge the ever-blissful and attractive form of the Supreme Lord, should take to the bhakti process, for they will get all the results they need without any of the negative consequences. Of course for bhakti to be truly potent, it must be performed in a selfless manner. The aim should be to please Krishna’s desires.
While a pure, selfless attitude may be difficult to adopt in the beginning stages, if we look to the examples of great devotees, we can surely perfect our practice. Liberated souls like Shri Hanuman, Shrimati Radharani, Prahlada Maharaja, and countless others are performing bhakti-yoga at all times. They are neither poor nor down-trodden. In fact they are deemed to be the most opulent living entities, for they always remain in Krishna’s association, both in mind and spirit. Therefore exalted souls are also referred to as Bhagavan. Narada Muni, the great saint and son of Lord Brahma, is often addressed as Bhagavan by Krishna Himself. Since Narada’s heart and soul are always with Krishna in perfect yoga, he also deserves the title of Bhagavan.
We should resist the urge to look to God as an order supplier. There is also no need to fear Him. The Supreme Lord is superior to us, but this superiority doesn’t exist for the purpose of providing results of karma. The Supreme Lord has no stake in karma; it is a system He created for the spirit souls who wanted to pretend to be Him. Karma is reserved for those who wish to spend all their time forgetting Krishna’s supremacy. Krishna’s superior nature is intended to provide spiritual satisfaction to the living entities, who all have a natural desire to serve and love. When this service is directed at the all-blissful Supreme Lord, the resulting condition is unmatched.