“My dear Supreme Lord Krishna, because You have given me this body of a demigod, I will have to go to some heavenly planet; so I am taking this opportunity to beg for Your mercy, that I may have the benediction of never forgetting Your lotus feet, no matter to which form of life or planet I may be transferred.” (King Nriga speaking to Lord Krishna, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 9)
These words were spoken by King Nriga, one of the most generous rulers in history, to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Part of nice prayers offered to the Lord, these statements go a long way in teaching us about the different rewards one can receive from the Supreme Divine Entity and which ones are actually worthwhile. Sometimes we ask for something, but when we actually get it, it turns out to not be beneficial to us. This sequence of events is similar to how a child will desperately want to play with a particular toy. After getting the toy and playing with it for a few days, the child completely forgets about it and moves on to a new interest. The ultimate reward of spiritual life is generally assumed to be ascension to a heavenly realm, a place where the enjoyment is unlimited and the miseries of life are non-existent. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, provide some more detail into what actually takes place in this realm. Moreover, these books reach the conclusion that the real benefit to human life is the chance to achieve liberation, or the end to the cycle of birth and death. Release from the miserable cycle known as samsara doesn’t necessarily involve grand opulence or the removal of distresses, but rather has everything to do with concentration, thoughts, and most importantly, consciousness.
This is quite a bit of information to take in at once, so let’s break down a few of the concepts to gain a further understanding. The prevailing opinion amongst theists is that if you are generally pious over the course of your lifetime, you will ascend to heaven in the afterlife. If you are overly sinful, then when judgment day comes, you will be forced to suffer eternal damnation in hell, burning in the “lake of fire” so to speak. The general consensus is that there is only one life on earth for each individual, a life which is determined at random or at least by the will of a higher power. This singular birth represents the only chance to choose which path to take: the righteous one or the sinful one. In addition, amongst such theists there is scant discussion of the soul or its interaction with matter. The body and soul are taken to be the same, thus the body is buried at the time of death. Questions pertaining to why certain individuals are forced to suffer in their one life on earth, or why some individuals don’t even live long enough to see adulthood, are not addressed. For example, if we only get one life, and if the aim is to be sufficiently pious, what would be the benefit to living long? Wouldn’t it be better to be killed in an accident early on in life. After all, wouldn’t this early death secure an easy track to heaven?
The Vedas, being the original scriptures of the world, shed some light on this issue. The first item taught to aspiring transcendentalists of the Vedic school is that one is not their body. The soul is the basic functional unit of life. The soul is spirit, and the outer covering of the soul is matter. Matter is dull and incapable of acting on its own. Thus the soul is both the basis of individuality and the catalyst for the workings of all matter, including nature. Though the Supreme Soul, or the soul of nature as a whole, may be imperceptible to the human eye, there is certainly a more powerful entity, a giant spirit if you will, that is responsible for the suspensions and orbits of the planets, in addition to the complex workings of nature. Both the individual soul and the Supersoul are unmanifest according to the vision of the individual. As conditioned human beings, we are unable to directly perceive spirit. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t recognize its workings. The actions of spirit are seen through visible symptoms, the most obvious of which relate to the movements of the body. A person is considered dead when their gross body becomes useless. This state is achieved when the soul, the driver of the car, exits the body. Similarly, birth is the event where a soul enters a new gross body. Due to the presence of the soul, the tiny pea-like mass gradually develops within the womb of the mother and then eventually comes out into the real world. As long as the soul remains in the body, the future development of the external covering continues.
“The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon, nor can he be burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.23)
Based on these scientific facts, which are quite logical and straightforward, it is understood that the soul is imperishable and capable of movement. The soul is the greatest space traveler, an entity which jumps from one body to another through the laws of nature. These laws are extremely fair, impartial, and well-executed. The collection of all actions and reactions is known as karma. It is through fruitive activity, actions which lead to some future development of the body, either favorable or unfavorable, that the soul transmigrates and associates with nature. Because the soul is imperishable and incapable of being destroyed, we all most certainly have lived before, and we will continue to live in the future.
“Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on the earthly planets; and those in the mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.18)
So where do heaven and hell fit into this model? These polar opposite regions certainly do exist, and they are precisely what we think them to be. Heaven is a place of excessive opulence and enjoyment. In our current lives, enjoyment is equated with wealth, beauty, fame, sumptuous food, and arousing sex life. In this way, we even get a taste of heaven in our present world. By the same token, the hellish conditions of pain and suffering are derived from physical harm, frustration, and loss of property and possessions. This too is also experienced in the material world. Therefore, we see that heaven and hell are simply realms within the material world where either extreme condition is seen in preponderance. Heavenly life involves excessive enjoyment for a longer period of time than that seen in our present body. The length of time spent in heaven is commensurate with the pious credits we accumulate through good works in our current life. In a similar manner, the duration of our stint on the hellish planets is determined by the impious credits we accumulate through nefarious and sinful activities.
Since our time in either realm is calculated off of credits accumulated through actions undertaken, we see that residence in both hell and heaven is not permanent. This again speaks to the laws of nature and karma. The concept of “one life” seems nice in theory, but it doesn’t square with the issue of time. A life, when understood properly, is simply a demarcation of time, the duration of an individual soul’s residence within a particular developed body. In this way, the term “life”, or “lifetime”, can be considered a variable, a value not constant across every individual. Therefore the Vedas give more importance to the essence of individuality, the soul. The soul, as the ultimate space traveler, can attain any realm through activities performed in accordance with the body it resides in. Just as our individuality doesn’t change when we wake up each morning, the qualities of the soul don’t change when we accept a new body in the next life. Upon waking up in the morning, we think that a brand new day has started due to the sun rising and our awakening from a sleeping state. But in reality, this concept of a day is entirely subjective, something based on the angle of vision of the individual. If we were to stay awake all night, would that mean that a day hadn’t passed? Since each day is simply a measurement of time, we see that this duration has no effect on our individuality. The outer covering changes at every second, and just because we don’t see this morphosis, it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. In a similar fashion, at the time of death, the soul, which is beyond the purview of the conditioned eye, subtly travels to another body, a form which is determined by one’s karma.
The Vedas, which incorporate all necessary material and spiritual information, come to the conclusion that the ultimate objective for the conditioned living entity is to achieve liberation. Unlike ascending to heaven or falling down to hell, liberation means never having to accept another body. If upon receiving liberation we don’t go to heaven or hell, where do we go? What type of body does the soul occupy in a liberated state? Moreover, is this body determined by karma or something else? In the liberated state, does the soul engage in activity, and if so, does it resemble the heavenly life experienced by the pious entities? The scriptures are full of answers to these questions, but to gain a basic understanding, we can look to the example of the famous King Nriga.
King Ikshvaku was one of the first kings on earth. Being the son of the first man on earth, Manu, Ikshvaku set the standard for chivalry and good governance. He had a son named Nriga, who himself grew up to become a famous king. He was well-known throughout the world for being extremely generous. The king’s duty is to collect taxes and use that money to provide protection to the innocent. He is also to give in charity, but not just to anyone. The priestly class of men, the brahmana, is deemed the only one worthy of charity. Brahmanas aren’t simply beggars, but rather they are pious souls who intentionally take to an austere lifestyle to remain levelheaded in their devotional practices. If a brahmana works all day to secure a living, he will not have time to study the Vedas, teach others Vedic wisdom, perform sacrifices, and complete other related religious duties.
So what do brahmanas accept in charity? Since they have no desire for material enjoyment, they simply require things that will sustain their livelihoods. Nothing is more economically friendly to a landowner than a cow. If the cow is well-protected and allowed to graze freely and openly, it will supply heaps and heaps of milk. This milk can then be used to produce an abundance of food dishes. In addition, the excess milk can be sold or traded for other essentials. For these reasons, pious kings used to give so many cows away in charity to the brahmanas.
King Nriga was no different in this regard, but one time he made a grievous error. Since he was giving away so many cows during one particular occasion, he accidentally took a cow that had previously been given to a brahmana. He then donated the same cow to another brahmana. Thus a quarrel ensued, as the king, in slang terminology, had essentially acted like an “Indian giver” by taking back something he had given away as a gift. Though he tried to remedy the situation by giving thousands more cows to both affected parties, no solution could be reached. At the time of death, King Nriga’s karmic slate suffered slightly as a result of this transgression. Instead of immediately ascending to heaven as was due him, he had to suffer some time in the hellish planets for having taken a brahmana’s property. The god of death, Yamaraja, “Mr. Judgment Day” if you will, asked the king if he would first like to suffer for his sins or enjoy the credits of his pious deeds. The king decided to suffer first. Thus he was cast off into the body of a lizard which remained stuck in a deep well.
A long time later, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Lord Himself, descended to earth to enact wonderful pastimes. It seems odd that the Supreme Lord would come to earth in the guise of a human being, but for the devotees, there is no difficulty in understanding this. The designations of manifested, unmanifested, human, demigod, etc. are only useful to the conditioned living entities. The Supreme Lord never changes. Whether one views Him as the unmanifested, all-powerful Supersoul residing within the heart of every living entity or as the Supreme Personality of Godhead who assumes various transcendental forms to enact pastimes on earth, there is no change in the Lord. God is God, and He is always nirguna, or without material qualities. This doesn’t mean that He is formless, but rather He is devoid of a material form. When He comes to earth, His incarnations are sometimes referred to as saguna, or with attributes, but this is strictly according to the vision of the conditioned observer. The Lord comes in the guise of a human being, but He remains completely spiritual and free of the effects of nature.
“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 12.5)
The Lord’s guise of a human being benefits the living entities because it allows them to slightly conceive of the Supreme Lord’s spiritual attributes. When one remains fixed on studying the unmanifested form of the Lord, progress is very troublesome. Goswami Tulsidas says that the nirguna form of the Lord is akin to a numeral representation of the dollar amount in a bank transaction. The saguna form, or the incarnation or deity representation of the Lord, is likened by Tulsidas to the written-out version of the same numeral. When we write checks, we enter the dollar amount in numerals, but then we also write out the same amount in word form. The numerals can easily be misinterpreted, or even nefariously altered, to mean something else, so the words themselves remove all doubt. In the same way, the nirguna form of the Lord can be misidentified by the conditioned living entities to be formless or a body equal in potency to the living entities. This is where the foolish notion of “I am God” comes from. The saguna form, which is not different from any other form of the Personality of Godhead, eliminates all doubt and confusion by showing the conditioned entities exactly what God looks like, what activities He takes to, what His nature is, and what things please Him. So anytime an individual steps forward and claims to be God, we can compare their qualities to the bona fide incarnations, the saguna manifestations, to see whether they are legitimate or not. Tulsidas uses the comparison to the bank transaction to stress the importance of worshiping the saguna form, as this style of worship is much less prone to confusion and exploitation by the miscreants of the world.
We can never truly comprehend the self-illuminating, all-powerful nature of the Supreme Lord, who is without material qualities, but through His appearances on earth in the guises of various living entities, we can gain a slight understanding. Lord Krishna, being the original, all-blissful, eternal form of the Lord, certainly helped us out a great deal by appearing on earth around five thousand years ago. During His adult years, He reigned as the King of Dvaraka. On one occasion, His family members found a lizard stuck in a deep well. Unable to get it out, they came to Krishna and asked for His help. The Lord came to the scene and was easily able to extend His hand into the well and rescue the lizard. Upon receiving the transcendental touch of Krishna, the lizard, the reincarnated King Nriga, assumed the form of a beautiful demigod adorned with a royal helmet and various ornaments. King Nriga thus appeared before Krishna and immediately offered his obeisances.
After narrating his story about his past life to Krishna, King Nriga was ready to ascend to heaven to enjoy the pious credits he had previously accumulated. In the above referenced statement, we see that the king had no desire to go to heaven and enjoy material opulence. Rather, he was a little fearful, for he had seen the Supreme Lord face-to-face and realized there was nothing that could compare to the happiness derived from this association. Therefore he kindly asked the Lord that he be allowed to always remember Him, no matter where he went. Through this kind request, we see the true meaning of liberation, the ultimate achievement for the conditioned entity trapped in the mire of reincarnation.
The cessation of birth and death is certainly nice, but from King Nriga’s example, we see that activity doesn’t stop in the liberated state. Rather, liberation really means becoming free from the material qualities. The individual souls can never become equal to God, but they can become nirguna. Gunas are material qualities, and they are binding for as long as one is willing to associate with them. In the liberated state, the living entities use the nature around them, including their own gunas, to serve the Lord, remember Him, meditate on His transcendental form, and chant His names. Through such behavior, gunas become purified, and the conditioned living entities assume a nirguna state. Though the living entity becomes free of material qualities, their liberation still involves activity, that of service to the Supreme Spirit. This is the true benefit of spiritual life, a boon which speaks to the essential characteristic of the soul, or its dharma.
Though heavenly opulence seems nice, it is meaningless to those whose minds are fixed on the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord. Goswami Tulsidas says that in the heavenly planets, it is heard that since material opulence is so great, the enjoyers forget about their impending death, a forgetfulness which results in their subsequent fall down to the material world. This is precisely what King Nriga was afraid of. Surpassing the experience of life in heaven, a higher joy can be felt through dhyana, or constant meditation on the Supreme Lord. This shouldn’t be mistaken to mean silent meditation, where one gives up all activity. This certainly can be an aspect of spiritual life, but perfect dhyana is to always be thinking of the Lord wherever one goes. One in the liberated state is always meditating, throughout the day, wherever they may find themselves. Such a commitment to transcendental concentration can only be achieved through a change in consciousness.
Therefore, those who are intelligent abandon hope for heavenly enjoyment and insulation from hellish pain. They take directly to bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, through chanting the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Remembering, hearing, chanting, and meditating on the Lord at all times bring about the purification of consciousness. When this transcendental mindset remains at the time of death, the soul gains release from birth and death and is rewarded with the eternal association of the Lord. This connection remains unbroken and undaunted, thus giving the soul the greatest benefit it could ever ask for.