“We may put thousands of dollars in a bank because we have faith that that bank will not close down. If we have faith in banks and airlines, why not have faith in Shri Krishna who is acknowledged by so many Vedic literatures and by so many sages to be the supreme authority?” (Shrila Prabhupada, Raja-vidya, Ch 7)
We put so much faith into entities and people that we have never met, never heard of, or don’t know in the course of our daily lives. The bank can hold up to thousands of our hard earned dollars, promising to keep it safe and secure and available to us whenever we need it. The airline promises to deliver us to the intended destination in a reasonable amount of time if we just pay them a certain amount of money. Full trust is already there in so many exchanges, but when it comes to spiritual life, believing in the promises of a better afterlife, one devoid of heartache, misery, pain, defeat, exhaustion, fear and so many other unwanted experiences, we are extremely hesitant, so much so that we’ll refuse to follow the prescriptions offered to us in a mood of pure sincerity, love, concern and care. But if we just take one small step in an authorized system, a discipline supported by so many people who are capable and worthy of accepting the trust of others, the greatest benefit will come as a result.
Just stepping out the door in the morning requires trust. We’re assuming that, based on our past experiences, no one will attack us and that the weather elements will not harm us. Next, we’ll either step into a motor vehicle or walk down the street. Again, there is trust and faith throughout the process. Driving on the roads requires putting faith in other drivers, people that we know don’t obey the law half the time. How many people do we see driving that actually use their signal lights to indicate that they will be changing lanes? How many people do we see who actually obey the speed limit? Haven’t we countless times witnessed people driving erratically or very slowly because they were talking on their cellular telephone? Yet in these same people we assign full trust that they will not harm us with their automobile while driving.
The same faith is invested in the bank. We work very hard to accumulate money, so to keep it safe we hand it over to a third party. Sure there is a guaranteed protection against losing our money from the federal government, but how can we trust them? We know that politicians lie, cheat and steal to get what they want, so how do we know that when it comes time to insure our money deposited in a fledgling bank, they will come to the rescue?
The human mind, being the most advanced, has the ability to think critically, which results in a healthy level of skepticism. Through questioning the authority and trustworthiness of others, any and all arguments can quickly be negated. The discipline of law operates on this very formula. A good lawyer is one who can cheat the law by shaping and presenting the text of a particular statute to say and mean something completely different than what the original writers intended. Through skepticism and questioning of authority, arguments can be presented in an array of different angles, thus leaving the final judgment open to interpretation.
Despite the skeptical attitude, the human being nevertheless puts faith into so many things and people. For the dedicated transcendentalist, one who may have originally been skeptical of the promises of spiritual life but then later on practiced the principles himself and saw tangible results, preaching to others about the benefits of transcending the effects of matter and serving the interests of the soul is a difficult task. With so many religions in existence, and with seemingly incongruous visions of the Almighty, there is a general distrust of the truths espoused by spiritual leaders looking to make a difference.
So how do we decide what to do? Should we just continue pretending that God is dead, that He doesn’t exist? Just as trust in other areas was established and solidified by the results that ensued after the initial faith was offered, we can tell whether or not a system of spirituality is bona fide by applying a little faith in the beginning stages and then seeing the results that come. This was the tact taken by Arjuna, the lead warrior for a very famous family of fighters around five thousand years ago. Faced with the dilemma of either going to war and fighting for a kingdom that rightfully belonged to his family or quitting and allowing the friends and family members fighting for the opposing army to maintain their lives, Arjuna could not decide what to do. Luckily for him, he didn’t decide right away without thinking. He first presented the matter to his dear friend and cousin Krishna, who happened to be his charioteer at the time.
In the game of golf, if a player is unsure about what club to use or what type of shot to hit next, he might ask his caddie, the person who carries his golf bag around the course. Though the caddie is of a lower stature, his help can sometimes make the difference between winning and losing. Krishna, though Arjuna’s charioteer at the time, was wholly capable of steering His friend in the right direction. Krishna first mildly rebuked Arjuna for being faint of heart. After all, a warrior’s business is to fight the enemy and get the job done without paying consideration to life and death or the well-being of the opposing side. If members of the warrior class did not take on this business, who would? In any society, for there to be peace and prosperity there must be a reliable force which is dedicated to protecting the innocent and bringing evil to justice. If soft-heartedness is found in such protectors, their defending capabilities will suffer.
“My dear Arjuna, how have these impurities come upon you? They are not at all befitting a man who knows the progressive values of life. They do not lead to higher planets, but to infamy.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.2)
Krishna continued by discussing the properties of the soul, which is revealed to be the identifying agent within every living form of body. In the eyes of the government, our identity may come through our social security number, our name, our address, or our phone number. With our family, just the name is enough, and with our bosses it is the work that we provide that defines us. But what transcends all of these attributes is the soul itself, which is not attached to the body in any way. Krishna revealed to Arjuna that the soul is not slain when the body is slain, nor does it ever take birth. It exists eternally, while the various bodies it assumes go through changes based on nature’s schedule.
So how does the soul end up in different bodies? What determines the future fortunes of the person, who is identified as a spiritual spark? Again, Krishna, as the best counselor and friend who knows everything, informed Arjuna that whatever state of being one remembers at the time of death, that state he will attain without fail. This is similar to going up to an authority figure and having them ask us what we want. “What do you want my son? Whatever you say, I will give you.” The responses can then run the gamut. “I want to be rich and powerful; I want to have beautiful women all around me; I want to sleep all day; I want to be intoxicated all the time.” For the embodied soul these same desires manifest through consciousness, which is then measured when the soul exits the body, which is the event we refer to as death.
Obviously, at this most critical of junctures, the consciousness, the foremost thoughts within the mind, will be very difficult to predict and control. When one’s life flashes before their very eyes, the events and experiences that had the most significant influence will be remembered first. Therefore Krishna then reveals that the key aspect to shaping consciousness is the activities that are performed during one’s lifetime. In this way the results of action determine the future fortunes of the individual. Hence the system of religion, or dharma, is handed down, with first class, second class and third class subsystems recommended for different grades of people.
Why the different classes of religion? Why not just have one system? Because of the way nature works and the desires of the individual, not everyone will take to the first class system right away. This is similar to how grades are necessary in a school system. The aim of going to school is to eventually become proficient in the subjects being taught. But a student can’t just start at the final grade level and learn everything there is to know. They must work their way through the lower grades, accumulating information and piling onto their knowledgebase, before they can reach the final stage of graduation.
Similarly, one who is in the lower grades of life, such as the animal species or a human form that is not very intelligent, cannot understand the highest truths, including the basic information presented by Krishna relating to the soul. It should be noted that Krishna started off His discourse with Arjuna by describing the properties of the soul and how it is not tied to the body. Therefore we can deduce that this understanding is the prerequisite to any higher form of knowledge. Without understanding the differences between spirit and matter, an individual cannot make any tangible progress in spiritual life.
But those who are driven by lust, anger and greed furthered through intoxication, meat eating and so many other activities that demobilize the spiritual consciousness will have no chance for understanding the liberating truths of life. Therefore there is the third class system of religion, one geared for those in the mode of ignorance. This basic system of regulation allows for a general progression of consciousness, where at the very least promotion to a higher mode in the next life is granted. The second class system is geared towards those in the mode of passion; people who are after fruitive gain acquired through great effort. Since the body will ultimately be discarded, assigning top priority to its well-being and sense happiness is not very intelligent. Nevertheless, if activity in the mode of passion can be regulated, promotion to a higher consciousness can be had.
“One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman. He never laments nor desires to have anything; he is equally disposed to every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.54)
Those who follow the first class system of religion understand the differences between body and soul; thus they can act wisely. Krishna tells Arjuna that one who follows this system can eventually reach the stage of consciousness known as brahma-bhutah, which means they understand Brahman, or the all-pervading nature of spirit. Since every form of life is identified by the spirit soul residing within, there is an equality shared amongst all species. A dog may not have the intelligence to speak or do mathematics, but it is still the same in spiritual quality as the most respected human being. The inferior body type belonging to the dog is the result of karma, which is driven by desire. Just because someone makes a mistake every now and then doesn’t mean that they cease being a vital living force. Even the most intelligent among us commit grievous errors from time to time. Therefore the body of a dog, cat, insect or reptile can be viewed as being the result of a temporary fall from grace, a deviation from the purified mentality.
Arjuna’s charioteer presented this logically sound information about the workings of nature, both spiritual and material, and backed it up with statements from authority figures. Nevertheless, the first class system of religion did not represent the summit of activity according to this friend and cousin of Arjuna’s. Rather, there was one higher step to be ascended, one final hill to climb. When one reaches the brahma-bhutah stage, their activity doesn’t stop. Rather, once hankering and lamenting cease due to the equal vision acquired by realization of Brahman, one becomes a prime candidate for taking to devotional service, or bhakti-yoga. This is actually Krishna’s final recommendation to Arjuna as well. The friend, cousin and charioteer at the end revealed Himself to be none other than the Supreme Lord. To prove His divine nature, Krishna displayed His wonderful universal form, consisting of all the planets and their notable personalities. This vision was so wonderful and unique that no one had ever seen it before. Only Arjuna and Sanjaya, the person granted divine vision by Vyasadeva, the literary incarnation of Godhead, could see this wonderful sight on the famous battlefield of Kurukshetra.
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.66)
After presenting the relevant information about life and what should be done and what shouldn’t, Krishna concluded His talk by advising Arjuna to simply surrender unto Him and be delivered of all sinful reaction. Arjuna began by being worried about hurting his friends and family fighting for the other side, but he ended by putting all his faith and trust into the one person to whom all of us are forever linked, the Supreme Lord. Arjuna fought ahead not out of any desire for victory or the control over a kingdom. He performed his occupational duties simply because that was what Krishna advised. Though fighting with arrows shot from his Gandiva bow, Arjuna was actually in perfect yoga by listening to Krishna and keeping his thoughts fixed on Him. The Lord revealed in His wonderful discourse to Arjuna, a talk which is now known as the Bhagavad-gita, that anyone who thinks of Him at the time of death no longer has to go through reincarnation, as they will not be forced to suffer the effects of the different material bodies again.
From these teachings we can understand that if we think about Krishna all the time and follow His instructions, we too will be benefitted when the end of life approaches. But lack of trust is the largest stumbling block. How can we believe that Krishna really exists and that He is not just some mythological creation? How can we believe that the events described in the Bhagavad-gita are real? Just as we put faith in the airlines, the bank, and the government, if we put a little faith in the acharyas, those who take Krishna’s words to be their life and soul, we can soon realize that not only is the Bhagavad-gita real, but so is Krishna’s promise to deliver us from all perilous conditions should we surrender unto Him.
So who are some of these authority figures on spiritual life? What do they recommend we do? The saints of India, the famous preachers like Lord Chaitanya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, and many others, all agree that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. They may worship Him in one of His other forms like Lord Vishnu or Lord Rama, but their ultimate conclusion is still the same. Actually, anyone who professes to believe in God believes in Krishna already; they just may not know the nature of the Person they are worshiping. Even the atheists believe in Krishna; they just refer to Him as death, the all-powerful force that cannot be checked and which stands to take away life’s accumulated gains.
The Vaishnava acharyas, those who practice bhakti dedicated to Vishnu, advise that we regularly chant the Lord’s holy name as our primary system of regulation. First, second and third class systems of religion can help elevate us to a higher platform of consciousness, but due to the effects of the modern age known as Kali, which is marked by rampant quarrel and hypocrisy, following any regulative system is very difficult. How many people do we know that worship God on a regular basis? How many people actually surrender unto Him without any personal motive and without any desire for gain or protection from punishment? Following the principles of religion is very difficult, so in this age a shortcut method has been instituted.
When we visit a church or temple and pray for a few seconds, there is a nice feeling that results, one that is rarely found due to the struggles of everyday life. The Vaishnava acharyas ask us to reproduce that feeling as often as possible by regularly chanting the Lord’s names, which are nicely sequenced together in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. With this mantra we can replicate the worship performed in the church, temple or religious sacrifice at any second of the day. The more we chant this mantra the better, as our consciousness becomes steadily purified. We may be skeptical that a formula passed on by spiritual leaders in India can be effective, but if we invest a little faith in the process in the beginning, we’ll see that there is only Truth to be found in the holy name. If we refrain from sinful activities like meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex, the benefits from chanting will increase all the more. If we already put faith in unknown people who are only after earning a profit, why not put a little trust in people who are simply interested in pleasing the Supreme Lord and bringing more of His sons and daughters back to Him?