“Brahman is spirit, and these material bodies are active only because Brahman is within them. If we are active despite our contact with material nature, do we cease to be active when we purify ourselves of the material contamination and establish ourselves in our proper identity as pure Brahman?” (Shrila Prabhupada, Raja-vidya, Ch 4)
A wonderful rhetorical question posed by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada highlights the illogic in the viewpoint that once liberation is achieved, salvation if you will, activity ceases, which is the opinion of those who don’t believe there is any power higher than nature and also of those who take the Absolute Truth to be formless or void. Whether the final destination is described as nirvana or samadhi, attainment of the final goal does not signal the end of activity, but rather only the beginning of a spiritual awakening that continues well beyond the bounds of time and space. As part of the superior energy emerging from the Supreme Energetic, the living entity, the jiva soul, dominates matter, which is the separated, or inferior, energy. As is so nicely pointed out by Shrila Prabhupada, if even the inferior energy is incapable of stopping the activity of the superior energy, how can the achievement of liberation, wherein the effects of the inferior energy are completely removed, stop the superior energy from exhibiting its active principle?
There needn’t be an answer posited, as the question is posed merely to shed light on a contradiction. Nothing can stop the soul from performing activity, for action is built into the workings of the soul. Nirvana may be the end and the state of enlightenment, and the same may hold true for samadhi, but with real salvation comes the beginning of worthwhile activity. Matter is an inhibiting force, one that causes false identification from the time of birth. Though matter furthers illusion in the activities and mindset of the living entity, it is still incapable of stopping action. The work taken up may not be of the higher variety and it may also be detrimental to the future well-being of the performer, but nevertheless, the active principle will continue to manifest.
How do we know that we are the superior energy and not completely one with everything? Why is there even a difference between spirit and matter? Though the concepts addressing these issues are nicely presented in the Bhagavad-gita, the treatise on spirituality spoken by Lord Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra some five thousand years ago, a rudimentary understanding of the workings of spirit and matter can actually be obtained through our own experiences. We know that we survived within the womb of our mother before our consciousness developed. We were once the size of a tiny pea, yet now we are full-blown human beings capable of understanding the workings of life, the imminence of death, and the growth periods beginning from conception.
Throughout these shifts in appearance, the identity of the individual never changes. Whether a person is within the womb, outside running around as a small child, or sitting in their chair studying books as an adult, they remain the same person. But something definitely has changed, for we treat adults and children differently. Obviously the outer covering, the dress composed of material elements worn by the individual, is unique to each phase of life. The workings of the material energy are so strong and at the same time subtle that the constant changes are seemingly imperceptible to the person dwelling within the body. When we speak of the individual, there must be an identifiable aspect, something that transcends the changes to the exterior. For instance, we know that the arms and legs are considered part of us, but if we should happen to lose one of them, we don’t cease to be. The same concept can be expanded out to every single aspect of the body except one: the soul. The atma, or spiritual spark, is the essence of individuality, and its presence within the body is the indication of life. Once the soul exits, the same form which was once useful becomes dull and lifeless. It can no longer do anything on its own, and it is left to rot and decay.
Vedic information reveals that the soul continues to exist forever. We know that there was life on earth before our birth and that society continues after someone dies, so we know that the soul must continue to remain in existence. Where it goes nobody knows except the higher authorities, but the guarantee is that somewhere rebirth will take place in some type of body. Matter is considered the playing field where the jiva, or individual living entity, gets to act out its desires.
“Besides this inferior nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is a superior energy of Mine, which are all living entities who are struggling with material nature and are sustaining the universe.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.5)
Spirit is considered part of the superior energy, one that directly correlates with the Supreme Person, that entity most of us refer to as God. Ironically enough, matter guided by nature is so influential that the jiva doesn’t even know that he is superior. He naturally subordinates himself to the dictates of nature, which steadily attack the senses of the acquired body. For instance, the jiva has full control over its actions, as matter cannot compel anyone to do anything. Rather, it is the other way around, as the owner of the body steers the ship and decides in which direction it will turn next.
Yet we see with alcohol addiction and voluntary subordination in relationships with the opposite sex that matter is viewed as superior by the living entity not properly trained to perceive its inferior status. The sentimentalist and sectarian hardliners can’t find much to criticize with the Vedic traditions, as the teachings about the differences between matter and spirit, the eternality of the soul, and the need for becoming God conscious are wholly logical and difficult to dispute in a rational discussion. The primary tool invoked by opponents, however, the cheapest shots they take, their only resort after being soundly defeated in philosophy, is to attack the Vedic tradition of deity worship, wherein material elements are used to construct a statue or picture representation of the Supreme Person which is then worshiped.
What’s ironic is that idol worship is seen in every sphere of life except in the authorized archana-vidhi of the Vedic tradition. What do we mean by this? Worship primarily involves remembering, with tribute and attention being offered by the worshiping individual. Since matter is a temporary manifestation, any living entity who is beautiful, well-skilled in a particular area, or very powerful really hasn’t done much, as their abilities are related solely to an inferior energy. Therefore those who worship such people through heaping praise, viewing posters, and spending money are essentially worshiping idols. They may scoff at such a suggestion. “I don’t worship these individuals. You don’t see me bowing down to them.”
If the mind is fully dedicated to the interests of another person, how can that allegiance not be deemed worship? Since the person offered the praise is not even properly identified as being a spirit soul, how can the said adoration and attention not be considered idol worship? Even the foolish sectarians blinded by ideology, who use dogmatic insistence as their only argument of persuasion, and who criticize the Vedic traditions, believe in worshiping a higher power, with the exact entity worshiped being dependent on the specific tradition. We know that the key ingredient in worshiping is remembering, wherein the worshipable figure’s image is carved into the mind and then contemplated on. If such worship is recommended within the mind, what then is the harm in creating a statue or picture representation of the same person and worshiping it outwardly? If words on a page can evoke laughter, sympathy and joy, why can’t a statue representation of Shri Krishna bring tremendous bliss to the worshiper? Also, when we worship the deity, we substantiate our claims of faith and allegiance to the highest authority figure, the Supreme Lord. Outward worship is actually more beneficial because it allows others to see the importance of worshiping the Supreme Lord in full God consciousness.
Through their willing subordination to the demands of material nature, the jivas provide a tiny glimpse of the natural loving propensity of the spirit soul. Though spirit is superior to matter, the dharma of the soul, the essential characteristic if you will, is to serve. Therefore even when in a conditioned state, when matter is found in abundance, this desire to subordinate and serve other entities emerges. When the objects of worship are determined solely by the features of their outer coverings, the reverence is conducted under illusion. True dharma is rekindled when the superior energy sparks take to subordinating themselves to the Supreme Spirit, that one entity who is beyond the effects of material nature.
Aham brahmasmi is the first instruction taught to new students of the Vedic tradition. Brahman can be thought of as the whole collection of spirit, with each individual being a small fragment of the whole. Krishna is Parabrahman, or the reservoir of all energy. Brahman emanates from Parabrahman, but there is no loss on the original’s part through this expansion. We may take a dinner plate and drop it on the floor to get tiny fragments, but once this happens the original plate is lost. In the spiritual world such stringent laws do not apply. Krishna can expand Himself into millions of fragments and still remain completely the same person.
Due to His fixed position, the Supreme Lord is the only object worthy of our undivided attention and worship. In this sense we see that liberation, or salvation, involves complete and unalloyed service to Krishna in a mood of pure love. In the Vedas salvation is referred to as apavarga, which is a word that describes the removal of the most distressful conditions resulting from subordination to matter. Matter is an energy expansion from Krishna after all, so even though it is a separated energy and inferior to the living entities, it is nevertheless non-different from God. Therefore when matter is utilized properly, it loses its inferior status and turns into something that is completely the same in quality as the individual; essentially creating a state of oneness. The expert batsmen is considered one with his bat because without the object to strike the ball, the player would not be who he is. Similarly, the material body of the liberated soul becomes spiritualized through service to the Supreme Lord.
“…the word pavarga signifies our struggle for existence and our meeting with defeat, exhaustion, bondage, fearfulness and, at last, death. Apavarga means that which can nullify all of these material conditions. Krishna is said to be the giver of apavarga, the path of liberation.” (Shrila Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 59)
As a Sanskrit word, apavarga is the negation of pavarga, which describes the conditions of fear, exhaustion, defeat, being bound up, and death. When these unwanted conditions of life are removed, apavarga is achieved, which indicates salvation. Nowhere in this definition do we see anything about the cessation of activity. Even when we are at complete rest and doing absolutely nothing, the mind continues to work, for the mind is directly under the purview of the soul. Matter, for all its inhibiting influences, cannot stop the activity of the soul, so how could liberation, which is deemed a superior condition, be capable of doing something the inferior energy, which is meant to cause illusion, can’t even do?
It must be noted that there is a type of liberation that brings a temporary loss of identity. Brahman is the sum collection of individual spirit sparks, and those who understand the equality shared between all life forms thus ascend to the platform of Brahman realization. At the time of death the desires and previous work performed of the individual are measured and a commensurate body is crafted for the next life. One who is on the Brahman platform has no desire for material interaction, so they are not given a material body in the next life. Yet, since their activity in spiritual existence is lacking – i.e. they have no desire to voluntarily subordinate themselves to the whims and dictates of the Supreme Lord, who only asks the living entities to perform activities that will ultimately bring them the highest pleasure – a future spiritual body isn’t granted either. Rather, the impersonalist philosophers, the brahma-jnanis who lack devotion to God, are secured a place in the Brahman effulgence, the light of Truth.
Though this reward is deemed liberation, it technically isn’t, for residence in Brahman is not permanent, as desire ensures that inactivity cannot remain dormant for long. Eventually desire will creep up again even for those who are on the Brahman stage. We know from the Bhagavad-gita that when the time comes for creation, the Supreme Lord impregnates Brahman and thus creates life on earth. In this way we see that Brahman is an intermediary stage, one that doesn’t necessarily grant permanent relief from the workings of the inferior energy known as matter. Therefore the only real liberation is to ascend to the personal realm of the Personality of Godhead, the land reserved for those who want to abide by Krishna’s orders. When we speak of orders, we mean activities that are meant to bring pleasure to both parties. The dog’s orders are sometimes reluctantly followed by the master so that a pleasurable condition can be had. The same goes for the wishes of the spouse and children. But Krishna’s orders are so wonderful that there is no harm in meeting them. And the result of the smiling face of the Supreme Lord trumps all other benedictions.
So how do we achieve real liberation? How do we find activities that transcend the inhibiting effects of material nature? Just as Brahman is superior to maya, or material nature, the Supreme Lord’s holy names are superior to any sound vibration existing in any land. When the sparks of Brahman take to chanting and hearing these names on a regular basis, they will no longer see dualities in existence. No longer will different energies be considered, for everything will be seen in its relation to the Supreme Lord. The holy name carries with it God’s transcendental forms, pastimes and qualities; so the name is the mother and father of spiritual practice. The sounds of the holy name are best created through a wonderful sequence of words known as the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
This chanting is both a means and an end. It serves as a way to gain release from the clutches of material existence in the beginning stages, and after liberation is secured, the chanting only increases in intensity and joyfulness. The holy name is our link to the transcendental world, so if we regularly recite it, hearing it at the same time, we can always stand tall against the influences of the inferior nature. We’ll even bypass the Brahman understanding very quickly and become fully God conscious by the time of death.