“Those who are frustrated and confused want to negate this material world. They know what they don’t want, but they do not know what they do want.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Teachings of Queen Kunti, Ch 25)
Though the true mission in life is to find that one thing that we want, that singular object or engagement which will give us everlasting peace of mind, the focus tends to initially shift towards those things that we don’t want. One after another, an object, experience, person, place, or thing is renounced in favor of something else. As soon as the enjoyment derived starts to fizzle out, another action is adopted. In spite of the repeated attempts and failures at finding true happiness, the human being keeps trying, finding more and more things to renounce in the process. Yet if we understand just what it is we really want and how to get it, the search for success will be a very short and fruitful one.
A famous Def Leppard song asks, “What do you want?”, with the accompanying response being, “I want rock n roll.” Indeed, in the younger years, there are many things to search after. The child is after preyas, or immediate satisfaction. Simply play all day and don’t worry about the consequences. The typical day of a small child is quite fascinating from an adult’s perspective. Get up in the morning and start running around. If the parents are awake, jump on their bed and urge them to get up and join in on the fun. Then go into the living room, turn on the television, or start running around the house. If siblings of a similar age are present, the enjoyment is increased even more. Eventually one of the parents will wake up and add some regulation. “Go to the bathroom. Brush your teeth. It’s time to eat.” These required activities are akin to the routine pit stops made by racecar drivers. After getting refueled and cleaned up, it’s back to the pursuit of fun.
Even as the child matures, there is still the penchant for play. The rock n roll attitude is a rebellious one that flies in the face of rules and regulations. “I want to rock n roll all night and party every day.” In the younger years, human beings think they know what they want: fun all the time, with a little regulation mixed in. But as soon as some maturity is acquired, when a steady job is found and a new family is started, renunciation takes hold. Instead of joining a gym and taking on the obligation of the exercise that comes with it, staying at home and relaxing seems like a much better idea. Instead of rock n roll all night, it’s quiet time at home with minimal distractions. Instead of eating whatever you want, whenever you want, careful attention is paid to diet so as to limit the increase in weight.
As the human being gets older, more and more activities are renounced. Happiness now comes not from new ventures or the pursuit of preyas, but rather, from the absence of activity, the negation of so many engagements that have grown tiresome and are no longer worth the effort. Indeed, when seeking to persuade others to their point of view the advocate will focus more on the negative aspects that are eliminated by their philosophy. Politicians operate in this way. The challengers during election season will point to how rotten things are in the world and how the current officeholder is to blame. Change then sweeps into office, but in a few short years, the new maverick becomes the old hat, the cause of new distresses and pains.
When faced with frustration, the initial impulse is to simply negate activity. If we have a bad experience at a certain place, the easy option is to simply avoid going there in the future. In every engagement that eventually leads to an unpleasant situation, the simplest solution is renunciation. The philosophies of many spiritual disciplines are focused entirely on negation, wherein strict rules and regulations are imposed to allow for an absence of pain. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, describe the Absolute Truth, the one entity from whom everything emanates, as neti neti, meaning “not this, not that.” The pessimistic angle of vision takes this to mean that nothing in this world is good; everything is bad, or false. An engagement that was eagerly anticipated in the beginning but then led to pain and misery in the end is viewed as having been false the entire time. After all, something that is real wouldn’t deceive its targeted beneficiaries.
But simple negation is not enough. If it were, none of us would take to any activity. Instead of simply negating those bad engagements, the wise try to understand why there is an initial impulse to begin with. The mature human being can deduce that all of the fruitive engagements undertaken during his lifetime were ultimately sources of misery, so the question should be asked as to why one action after another was ever taken? What drives the human being to activity?
The Vedas kindly provide the answer. The spirit soul residing within an embodied being, or dehinam, is the essence of life. At its core, the soul craves individuality. When placed in a material body, there is the outer covering composed of material elements, but there are also the subtle elements of mind, intelligence and ego. It is this ego that drives activity, for everyone needs an identity. If someone disturbs us or says something that we don’t like, it is essentially their ego acting out in the wrong way. When the ego is focused on those engagements which don’t bring about a permanent shift in identity, a position where the individual understands his true position, there will naturally be misery. But when the ego is directed towards activities that maintain and support the constitutional position of the soul, neti neti gets understood for what it truly is.
“I am the Self, O Gudakesha, seated in the hearts of all creatures. I am the beginning, the middle and the end of all beings.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 10.20)
Though the dry renunciates who have the most pessimistic viewpoint pounce on the neti neti statements as evidence that this world is false and full of misery, the true understanding of the Vedic opinion is that the individual spirit soul has endless opportunities for describing, glorifying and serving its most loveable object, the Supreme Lord whose original form is known as Krishna. More than just a sectarian God, Lord Krishna is the very form of Godhead meant to be loved and adored by all of mankind. After all, if we are to acknowledge God’s existence, shouldn’t we know something about what He looks like and how He behaves? If He’s God, then surely He must be beyond duality, doubt, anger, jealousy and the effects of time.
Krishna, as the all-attractive and ever blissful Shyamasundara, is the ideal companion for the soul, whose consciousness determines their well-being. Instead of the temporary pleasure that results from jumping from one activity to another, when consciousness is purified through steady engagement in spiritual activity and control of the material senses that are driven by the constant desires within the mind, there is always happiness and peace. When the soul finds something that it truly wants, there is no consideration even given to renunciation. If all our time is spent in the loving service of our dear Krishna, what need is there to worry about which activities to avoid? If precious moments in life are spent riding the blissful sound waves of the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, how can there be any opportunity for outside attack on the senses?
The single greatest source of distress is the fatigue that comes from activities which don’t bring enough enjoyment. For instance, I may be excited to attend a sporting event or a Broadway show, but there is much effort involved in living these experiences. First of all there is the commitment, knowing that you have to be somewhere at a certain time. Then there are the crowds to deal with and the money sacrificed for tickets. Then the experience itself only lasts a few hours, after which the long and arduous journey home is undertaken. This experience may be worthwhile one or two times, but on a regular basis it becomes a great hassle. Why not just enjoy at home and avoid all the stress?
Bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, takes full advantage of the neti neti concept. Nothing in this world can properly describe the Supreme Absolute Truth’s glory, fixed position, transcendental features and pastimes, along with the sterling nature of His eternal associates, the nitya-siddhas. Faced with this predicament, the individual can take one of two paths. The first is the one taken most often. “Okay, so God is impossible to describe. I guess I just won’t even try then. Let me focus on other activities.” Since the incorrect viewpoint is adopted in the beginning, activities leading to misery subsequently follow. Surely the Lord is impossible to accurately describe, but once He is forgotten, the loving propensity of the soul will drag the individual to perform the same type of worship on worldly objects. Irrespective of caste, color, creed or religious affiliation, man has a natural desire to serve, even if that loving service is offered to the personal self. Since none of the serviceable objects is capable or worthy of accepting unending obeisances and affection from others, the bliss derived for those performing the service is very short-lived and the source of much trouble.
The other path taken in response to the neti neti dilemma leads directly to the spiritual world and hence provides ultimate satisfaction. Neti neti tells us what God isn’t, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t spend the rest of our lives trying to describe and glorify Him. For instance, if God is not the sun, we can say things like, “Not even the sun, which is ever resplendent, full of glory, and dedicated to its dharma of providing heat and light to the millions of living entities around the universe, can compare to the radiance and splendor of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the kindest benefactor.” Since the Absolute Truth is not the raincloud, we can say things like, “The dark raincloud, which has the same complexion as the beautiful Shyama, kindly pours down water upon the fertile land, affording the numerous living creatures the opportunity to sustain their lives, to maintain the vital force within their bodies. As such, the raincloud allows for service to the Supreme Lord through thoughts, words and deeds to continue. In this way, though the raincloud is not Krishna, it is His dear servant, a sustainer of life and thus deserving of praise and recognition by those who swim in the beautiful, transcendental waters of the ocean of divine love.”
Visible objects may be considered illusory, or not personally the Absolute Truth, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t make use of them to further our consciousness. The celebrated devotees of the past, the Vaishnava literary giants, knew very well the impossibility of fully describing the Absolute Truth and His features, yet they still continued to put forth volumes upon volumes of transcendental literature extolling the glories of Shri Krishna, His various non-different forms, and bhakti, or devotion. Goswami Tulsidas, in his Gitavali, very nicely describes the scene in the forest of Chitrakut when Lord Rama, His wife Sita Devi and His younger brother Lakshmana were residing there many thousands of years ago. Rama is the same Krishna but in the appearance of a warrior prince, a famous member of the Raghu dynasty that ruled the world a long time ago.
When describing the scene of the surrounding nature and the glories of Rama, Tulsidas notes that since the Vedas describe the Absolute Truth as neti neti, it is impossible to properly put the scene into words. Nevertheless, the entire poem, which is not short by any means, is dedicated to glorifying the Lord. The devotees, the bhaktas, know what they want in life: pure love in connection with God through consciousness. Therefore they make the best use of everything around them, including the words of the Sanskrit language and other languages as well. Words are just representations of sound vibrations, so when these sounds are used to further the God consciousness of the individual, they are anything but illusory. Indeed, the Supreme Absolute Truth is anything which directly relates to His personal feature as Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality possessing every opulence imaginable to the fullest degree and at the same time.
Lest we think the bhaktas represent unique instances of individuals finding their calling in life, since there is no difference in makeup from one soul to another, it is every individual’s inner desire to love God. The one person who everyone is inclined to serve for the rest of their lives is the Supreme Divine Being in the spiritual sky. Faced with this situation, there are again two options. One is to go against the natural properties of the soul by denying the existence of the Lord and the supremacy of bhakti. Turning one’s back on the sublime engagement of devotional service only leads to a further continuation of the cycle of acceptance and rejection, bhoga-tyaga. Without bhakti, the individual ascends a gradual scale of engagements that are each deemed their callings, but eventually the fire of passion fizzles out.
But those who are wise enough to make devotional service their life’s engagement through following the regulative principles of freedom handed down by Krishna Himself in the Bhagavad-gita and abiding by the recommendations and guidelines put forth by the Vaishnava acharyas, those who lead by example, not only find what they want, but they never let go of it either. For those deluded by a conditioned consciousness, everything in this world is negative, for nothing is satisfying enough. But for the devotee fixed in thoughts of love and devotion to Shri Krishna, the world becomes everything to them, a massive field full of trees and fruits that represent endless opportunities to glorify and further please their most loveable companion residing within the heart.
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