“The living entities are foreign to matter, and thus they cannot be happy unless they are situated in the same spiritual life as the Lord.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.5.26 Purport)
Life is full of pains and frustrations. Any mature human being will agree with this, as we could take the most successful individual, one who seemingly has everything at their fingertips, and find that they are frustrated in their attempts every so often, that they too feel the sting of defeat and the heartache arising from separation. Death, which is the name ascribed to God by those who refuse to acknowledge the Supreme Lord’s existence, itself represents the greatest limiting factor. All successes and gains will ultimately be wiped out at the end of life, irrespective of whatever plans are made. Those who roam the world in ignorance try to run away from the most powerful natural force throughout their lifetime, thereby encountering pains and miseries and not knowing what to make of them until ultimately everything becomes finished. The wise, however, understand that due to the flawed nature of the realm currently inhabited, pain and misery are two wonderful features that serve to remind the pure soul of where its true engagements lie. In the absence of pain, the highest gain, the reward that is the comfort and solace of the association of that one individual who is everyone’s friend for all of eternity, could never be found.
Frustration and pain work in strange ways. For instance, to some people, just earning a paltry living is a form of hardship. “If I had millions of dollars, I wouldn’t complain about anything. When you are wealthy, you can just buy whatever you want without anyone there to stop you.” So let’s run with this example of going from rags to riches, becoming a rich millionaire, someone who has maybe run a lucrative business or been successful in the arena of sports, and see if it brings a panacea of happiness and joy. The way the mind works is that desires constantly flow inwards, like rivers pouring into an ocean. The ocean of the mind’s satisfaction never fills to the brim regardless of how strong the incoming waves are. As such, desires can never be truly satisfied. One who is a millionaire will indeed meet much frustration because desires do not cease once a certain income level is reached. Even if a successful business brings a high net worth, the same establishments still require maintenance. Most profitable businesses are looking to expand, so with each new branch opened and every new product offered come the chances of failure. The same situation is present with the star athlete, who may have won several coveted titles but is still subject to eventually suffering defeat in some form or another.
“This body, O son of Kunti, is called the field, and one who knows this body is called the knower of the field.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 13.2)
The pain and misery experienced are rooted in the nature of the playing field. In the manifested world, there are different machines known as bodies. The dwelling our soul currently occupies is known as a perishable body, one that takes birth, develops for some time and then eventually gets discarded. The world we live in, including the numerous bodies, can be thought of as the playing field. The soul residing within is the knower, as it is directing the workings of the machine. Without knowing the nature of the field, the knower takes to activities which are deemed conditioned. They are described as such because they have no direct relation to the knower.
What does this mean exactly? If we eat something, is not the knower, the impetus for action, the soul, being satisfied? If we go to work every day to support ourselves and our families, is not the knower benefitted? The soul’s ultimate aim is not related to the body at all, as any object composed of matter is dull, lifeless and full of ignorance. Matter represents an external manifestation of the Supreme Spirit’s limitless energies. Material nature is governed by Goddess Durga, whose very name means “difficult to overcome”. The knower is deluded into a false identification and ergo a flawed guiding force for activity as soon as it is placed inside the localized instance of the playing field known as the body.
“O son of Kunti [Arjuna], I am the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, the syllable om in the Vedic mantras; I am the sound in ether and ability in man.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.8)
The simplest way to understand matter is to know that it is not God. The Supreme Lord in the Vedic tradition is described by many names which speak to His personal forms, with the original being Krishna, who is all-attractive. But at the same time there are other words which describe His transcendental features in a more neutral way, one that satisfies those who refuse to acknowledge, worship or understand the original personal aspect of the Supreme Spirit. The syllable om, which is popular with yogis and Vedantists and forms the starting point for all important Vedic mantras, is an impersonal way to address the same Personality of Godhead. Brahman, or Parabrahman, is the description of spirit that points to its ever-blissful nature, a position that can never be diluted. The innumerable individual spiritual fragments residing in the different playing fields are also Brahman, but they are in a marginal position. Matter is maya, or not Brahman, and Brahman is Truth. The spirit souls, the jivas, are marginal because they can choose between maya and Brahman. Naturally, since Brahman is tied directly to God, association with it will lead to pleasure, bliss and the relief of all miseries. Those who are in tune with Brahman only take to constitutional activities.
Maya, on the other hand, being not Brahman, brings just the opposite conditions. The pure knower of the field of activities, when deluded by maya, takes to conditioned activities, which by definition must yield pain. Certainly unhappiness and unpleasant conditions aren’t met with smiling faces and open arms, yet the pain that results from maya’s association can actually be quite beneficial. Since everyone meets with frustration and defeat in their endeavor to lord over material nature, there are typically two options that the bewildered soul can take to remedy the unwanted situations. The first option is the one chosen by most of us throughout the majority of our many lifetimes on earth. The spirit soul, as part and parcel of Brahman, exists eternally. When the body dies, the soul does not. The spiritual spark is simply placed into another playing field at a certain point in time in the future. The event of placing the soul within the field is known as birth, and the exit of the same knower is known as death. Hence the duration of time spent within each field of activity is deemed a life or lifetime.
Faced with frustration, the typical response is to make adjustments that will alleviate the distress felt. Despite the remedial measures adopted, as long as the deluded consciousness continues, pain and misery will never be rooted out completely. The glaring examples of this fact are the predicaments faced by the wealthy and the hugely successful. Multi-billionaires have very successful businesses, loads of money in the bank, and beautiful women hanging around them, but seemingly nothing to do. Hence they take to charity, philanthropy, training at and playing golf, travelling around the world, and all sorts of other activities to try to fill up their time. Anyone who does not know their true identity will remain perpetually lost, irrespective of how materially successful they are.
“O best among the Bharatas [Arjuna], four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me—the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.16)
On the other hand, when defeat ignites the inquisitive nature of the mind and causes a hankering to know the Truth, a desire to transcend the temporary ups and downs that are part and parcel of life on the playing field, the highest gain can be achieved. Under this model, the pain and frustration of material life turn into the greatest blessings. Let’s think of it in this way: When we place our hand into a fire, the skin will obviously burn. A burn brings such intense pain that even after only a second of putting the hand into the flame the hand will immediately move away from the fire. This rapid drawback is actually an involuntary motion, something we don’t have to explicitly tell the hand to do. The contact with fire results in such an acute and intense pain that the field of activity automatically alerts the knower to shy away from it.
The pain resulting from a burn is certainly considered harmful and something we would want to avoid. But what if instead of avoiding open flames altogether, we took some drug that numbed the feeling in our hand. Cortisone and other chemicals are often injected into athletes who are suffering from an injury but are desperately wanting to play in a big game or match. Let’s say we first injected a numbing agent into our hand and then went back and put the hand into the fire. This time there would be no pain and no involuntary reaction. In the absence of pain, everything would be fine, right? No more scorching pain, and thus no more fear of fire, no?
To the sober individual, one with a little intelligence, the absence of pain in this instance is actually incredibly harmful. Why is this? As soon as the numbing agent wears off, the effects of placing the hand into the fire are realized. Even though we didn’t feel anything initially, our hand started to burn as soon as it was placed into the fire. Just because we didn’t notice the reaction doesn’t mean that the burning stopped. Indeed, once the pain-killing agent subsides in effectiveness, the reality of the incredibly burnt hand is upon us. As such, the original pain that we felt and the accompanying involuntary drawback in motion that occurred when we didn’t use a painkiller turned out to be the greatest blessing, an indication from nature that we shouldn’t do this specific activity. The same principle applies in sports and other areas where painkillers are taken. Cortisone shots are deemed dangerous because in the absence of pain, the athlete might do further damage to the injured area. And they wouldn’t feel the effects of the damage until much later.
Intoxication is the most potent form of illusion that seeks to temporarily numb the pain of material life. The pressures of school, work and family can get to be so great that the suffering soul simply wants an escape, a false reality. But just as the numbing of pain proved to be harmful in the end to the individual placing their hand into the fire, the temporary effects of sensory escape brought on by drinking alcohol and taking drugs lead to the greatest detriment. The pain that we experience in the material world serves as the most glaring reminder that maya is not our best friend. The Supreme Spirit, Parabrahman, is the only entity worthy of our service and love.
So how do we shift from conditioned activities to constitutional ones? Can we just escape our current body and hope to be in God’s association at all times? This brings us to the tricky part about maya, an issue that may be difficult to grasp. Though the field of activity is one crafted solely for the purpose of associating with matter, when the same field is used for the benefit of the original Creator, the elements themselves become purified. Our eyes, ears, legs and hands were crafted out of a desire to imitate the Supreme Spirit, but when the same powerful aspects of the field of activity are used for the pleasure of the origin of all energy, to glorify His nature and His pastimes, and to regularly remain connected with Him through consciousness, then even the field of activity becomes the greatest vehicle for satisfaction and happiness.
The most blissful aspect of the Supreme Spirit is His name, as it automatically evokes memory and consciousness of His forms, pastimes and qualities. When the pain of material life leads us to regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, all our frustrations and defeats prove to have been worth the struggle. In the fields of exercise and physical fitness, if one is training to build their muscles or compete in a race, they need to inflict pain on the body through forced exertion. Eventually the pain will be more easily tolerated and the body will become stronger. In material life, no amount of tolerance and pain can lead to the purification of consciousness, a mindset where all thoughts and desires are focused on God. But when the same pain is endured in activities of the constitutional variety, such as chanting, hearing, remembering, and worshiping, the spiritual strength of the individual gradually increases.
“In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.40)
Unlike gains in material life, spiritual powers never diminish. Even a small step made in bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, never goes to waste. In the enlightened state, the natural torchlight of knowledge found within the soul starts to shine everywhere, thus guiding the knower of the body along the proper path of action at every step. Those activities which were the most inhibiting towards spiritual advancement are avoided, and those engagements which further solidify the spiritual consciousness are wholeheartedly adopted. Just as the burning sensation caused by fire turns out to be to our benefit since it loudly screams to us to avoid fire, the pain and miseries of material life are the greatest gifts from God, His indications that we are on the wrong path.
In spiritual life, the fortunes are reversed. In the heightened state of spiritual consciousness, one where the devotee feels intense pain due to separation from Krishna, even the apparent discomfort causes the greatest bliss. Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the most famous exponent of bhakti-yoga in the modern age and a divine incarnation of Shri Krishna Himself, always felt tremendous pain due to separation from Krishna. Yet His pain was extremely blissful, as He was in the mood of worship followed by the damsels of Vrajabhumi, the cowherd girls of Vrindavana who always think of Krishna even when they are not in His company. Under the spell of maya, pain arises from frustration and defeat and pleasure from temporary victories. But in spiritual life, the seemingly unpleasant engagements bring great pleasure and the seemingly pleasurable activities, those based on animal instincts, are avoided since they are divorced from any relationship to God. The regular chanting of God’s names brings one to the spiritual platform, a state of mind where all thoughts are focused on Krishna. Following this ascendency, the devotee only desires to be able to continue their divine service, a wish kindly granted and then protected by the Lord Himself. If not for the pain of the mundane world, the highest bliss of loving attachment to the Supreme Spirit would forever remain far out of reach.