“Whatever we learn of God from authoritative sources can be described, and that will help us make spiritual progress. This description is called kirtana. If we try to repeat what we hear, we become established in knowledge.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Raja-vidya, Ch 4)
One of the more amazing aspects of the traditions that follow the original Vedas, the scriptures instituted at the beginning of creation by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, is the wide breadth and volume of literature that has been produced. While particular spiritual traditions may have their single book that they focus on and study exclusively, the Vedas are not limited in this way. Rather, the truths espoused in the original Vedas – which do nothing more than glorify the Supreme Person, His energies, and the processes aimed at understanding Him – can be described over and over again by new generations of listeners. This further glorification is known as kirtana, and it serves two wonderful purposes. First, it allows the student to further advance in knowledge by making practical use of the information imparted upon them. Secondly, kirtana serves to further enhance the glory of the Person being described. The incomprehensibly large volume of the Vedic literature is another feature that establishes the supremacy of the person whose glories are sung and described.
What are the Vedas? The root word means “knowledge”, but the information contained within these sacred songs, hymns and poems is not meant for acquiring mundane information or learning how to perfect a specific technique. What is mundane information? How can we make subjective judgments on information aimed at achieving a purpose? At their root, the Vedas glorify the Supreme Person, the original divine being. Even within the celebrated songs this person is described by many different names, but each devotee prefers their specific name, be it Krishna, Vishnu or Rama. Regardless of the appellation chosen, to accept the authority of the Vedas is to accept the position of the person glorified within the songs. To say that the Vedas prohibit deity worship or any other process regularly engaged in by followers of the Vedic tradition is to talk utter nonsense. As soon as we hear someone quoting from the Vedas, it is to be understood that they accept Vishnu as the Supreme Lord; otherwise the statements and conclusions uttered by such people have no meaning.
Though there are different branches of knowledge presented, the Vedas are meant primarily for understanding the Supreme Person; otherwise the information presented would be limited and not given much attention. If we want to learn how to become a doctor, we have to study many different books about medicine and science. The books themselves can provide bits and pieces of information about various aspects of life, but the primary objective is to enable one to perform a specific medical task and become familiar with the discipline of healing their fellow man. Similarly, all the songs, truths and postulates put forth by the Vedas are meant for understanding Vishnu, who is beyond the dualities of the material world.
What do we mean by duality? There are examples of this everywhere, but we can take something as simple as the sunshine. In the wintertime, the colder months of the year, the sun’s presence is enjoyed and highly sought after. The sun is the beacon of light, providing the desperately needed heat and warmth to save the earth’s population from freezing to death. But in the summer months, when the temperatures are generally warmer, the sun being out in the sky can be the cause of pain. Whenever there is excessive heat, the blazing sun can only further add to the discomfort already inflicted by the high temperatures.
Is the sun any different from one season to another? Does the winter sun bear different properties from the summer sun? Has the sun somehow become favorable to one group of people and unfavorable to another based on the passage of time? Obviously the sun’s position is fixed, but what has changed is the environment and mindset of the people affected. Therefore there is a duality created, one where something constant is viewed in different ways based on circumstances.
The Supreme Lord can be thought of as the spiritual sun; His presence and mercy are always there. He is beyond the dualities of heat and cold, love and hate, and happiness and distress. Not surprisingly, those who are intimately connected with Him through a mood of love and devotion will similarly rise above the temporary ups and downs associated with material life. The Vedas exist for the very purpose of glorifying the Supreme Lord, which in turn brings about favorable conditions. If the mind is focused on the sweet, transcendental form of Shri Krishna – the most attractive and beautiful of all forms of Godhead, and not surprisingly the original one as well – the contemplative person can transcend the effects of their material body and rise to a higher plane of consciousness, one which brings freedom from the doldrums of everyday life.
Though the original Vedas are sufficient for understanding Krishna and glorifying Him, there are many other texts which descend from them, sort of like subsidiaries or supporting documents. On the surface this may seem like an indication of a deficiency in the original texts. After all, the Christians have their Bible and the Islamists their Koran, so why can’t followers of the Vedic tradition stick to one book and just study that exclusively? The Bible has such a strong following that others who are not interested in spirituality but have dedicated their lives to following a more narrow form of personal maintenance refer to their favorite books as “my Bible”. This actually indicates that the real Bible is not sufficient enough for them to take as their primary guiding force in life. If we have one book that we consider our Bible, it means that we look to it as our instruction manual for survival. If this book doesn’t reference spirituality, the nature of the soul, the workings of matter, and the need for rising above duality, then it proves to be insufficient in governing behavior and providing real happiness.
A particular text written at a particular time may be useful and tailored towards connecting with a specific audience, but as time goes by, the circumstances in society do change. The makeup of the modern world is drastically different than it was say even fifty years ago, so new challenges are presented to the spiritual leaders, those aiming to instruct the masses about the need for worshiping God. The ultimate conclusion should never change, however. This is the key. The followers of the Vedas never deny the authority of the original texts, nor do they downplay the supremacy of the person these works glorify. Rather, through kirtana, the same truths originally passed down can be explained in a multitude of ways. Actually, the total number of ways is infinite, as who could ever fully enumerate the glories of the Supreme Person, the one entity who is not limited by the bounds of time and space?
To see how new compositions can prove useful in expounding on the same eternal truths of life originally passed down by God, we can take arguably the first book written in the world, the lengthy poem called the Ramayana, penned by Maharishi Valmiki. At the time of this work’s composition, the Vedas were well established as the only theistic tradition in the world. The Supreme Person they glorified and the traditions put into place for honoring Him were well known to the people of the world. But Maharishi Valmiki, through deep meditation on the holy name of Rama, wanted to glorify the Lord even further. He decided to craft a poem that detailed the life and pastimes of Lord Rama, an incarnation of the original person.
Since the Ramayana reaches the same conclusion as the original Vedas, there is no contradiction raised. Indeed, the Ramayana is very understandable and appealing to those who are naturally inclined towards loving God. The original Vedas are songs and hymns, but the Ramayana describes specific pastimes enacted by the same God that we are all inclined to know and approach. Moreover, writing the Ramayana was a great way for Valmiki to share his loving emotions that coursed through his body. For Valmiki, there is no other God except Rama, and he made this fact well known through his Ramayana.
Similarly, there are the eighteen major Puranas composed by Vyasadeva, who divided the original Veda into four and wrote an absurd amount of Vedic literature. The Puranas were well established prior to Vyasadeva’s writing them down. Indeed, when Lord Rama was roaming the forests with His wife Sita Devi and younger brother Lakshmana, He would often discuss incidents from the Puranas during periods of rest. The brahmanas, the members of the priestly order, whose task it was to guide society in their steady march towards freedom from the cycle of birth and death, would also recite incidents from the Puranas when speaking in public gatherings.
Vyasadeva simply took the collection of incidents already known to most people and grouped them together into official literary works of art. Arguably his most profound work, the crown-jewel of Vedic literature, is the Shrimad Bhagavatam, or Bhagavata Purana. This wonderful text presents all the truths of the Vedas in a carefully laid out sequence that is easy to understand when studied in the proper order. The major incarnations of Vishnu are also described along with their activities. In the tenth canto of this sacred work is found the activities and pastimes of Lord Krishna, the supreme and original Personality of Godhead. The activities Krishna performed on this earth some five thousand years ago give a glimpse into the eternal pastimes that take place in the spiritual sky, Goloka Vrindavana. One can become liberated by simply hearing this transcendental nectar and relishing the sweetness.
Even with the Puranas, Ramayana and original Vedas present, the writing doesn’t stop. Acharyas, spiritual teachers who lead by example, are always authoring more commentaries, poems and books glorifying Krishna. Around five hundred years ago the followers of Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s preacher incarnation, wrote so many books that it would take a lifetime to simply peruse through them, let alone understand the deep meanings and purports. The brothers Shrila Rupa and Sanatana Gosvami wrote handbooks on devotional service, poems glorifying the qualities of Lord Krishna, and dramas expounding on the lila documented in the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Harivamsha, Mahabharata and other classic Vedic texts.
Becoming familiar with Krishna does not involve only a one-way flow of information. First the knowledge of the soul, its marginal position with respect to the material and spiritual energies, and its inherent link to the Supreme Lord is imparted to the serious student. Simultaneously, the regular chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, takes place. When this chanting is done congregationally, the practice is known as sankirtana. Kirtana is thus usually associated with singing songs about the Lord, but at its root it means “describing”. Therefore the writing of the acharyas and the poets of the bhakti school is equally considered kirtana.
When there is output of information, the speaker’s faith and confidence in the supreme stature of the person they worship is validated. Moreover, another source is created, a branch if you will, for people to come and take information from. The different branches of a bank allow customers to deposit and withdraw money without having to travel very far. If there were only one branch of a particular bank, the customers would be greatly inconvenienced, and thus the bank wouldn’t have many patrons. But with many branches, the breadth, scope and influence of the banking institution can rapidly expand.
Similarly, the more Krishna is glorified in written and spoken word, the more opportunities there are for others to learn about Him. The Vedas are not the exclusive property of the Hindus or those born to Indian parents. The Supreme Lord is the spiritual sun, so His light of transcendental goodness shines on every single person. The devotee, the bhakta who takes in spiritual information from their guru, or spiritual master, and then subsequently outputs the same knowledge in their own way, is the person who knows how to capture the spiritual energy and properly utilize it.
Is there a way to use God’s mercy improperly? Well, there is evidence of the improper use of heavenly gifts all around us. The sun, sky, earth, water and fire belong to Krishna’s separated energy. Though they are considered matter, or material, they nevertheless exist for a purpose. When utilized for one’s personal sense gratification or for carrying out wicked plots aimed at achieving world domination, obviously the energy is used improperly. But when the same earth is used to construct a deity form depicting the Supreme Lord’s transcendental body and the forms of His celebrated incarnations, the mercy of God is taken full advantage of. When the tongue we have been given by God is used to eat Krishna prasadam, or remnants of foodstuff offered to the deity, purification takes place. When the hands are used to clap along to the sankirtana party chanting “Hare Krishna”, the mercy of Krishna is utilized fully.
Reading about Krishna’s pastimes and glories in the countless books authored by devotees is as good as chanting, because the hearing process is still there. Whatever the beacon of light on earth, the glorified spiritual master, has learned from his studies of Vedic philosophy can be found in his written and verbal instructions. In this way the sacred texts represent not only the glory of Krishna but also the wonderful and effective nature of the processes employed in understanding Him. The teachings of the devotee and their glorifications of the Supreme Lord prove Krishna’s worthiness of worship. If we follow the simple formula of inputting wisdom from the authorized sources into our mind and then outputting the same glorifications in word and song, our progression towards the spiritual sky will rise to the most rapid pace, one that will guarantee liberation at the time of death.