“I am the original fragrance of the earth, and I am the heat in fire. I am the life of all that lives, and I am the penances of all ascetics.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.9)
In the Bhagavad-gita, the most concise, complete and thorough treatise on spirituality ever revealed to the world, Lord Krishna, the enjoyer of sacrifice, the person whom we call out to in times of trouble, in accurately trying to convey His position in the world states that He is the life of various activities and practices. Included in the list is the penances of ascetics. A person who devotes their life to asceticism must have a singular practice that defines them. Since this practice is dedication to tapasya, or austerity, Krishna is that very defining element. Without the essence of something, an object cannot live up to its billing. For the soul, its dharma is to be a lover of God, but without a central aspect, a key force that maintains the essential characteristic, a living being cannot be said to be self-realized or living off of their natural position. Thankfully for us, Krishna is the life of everything, including the practicing devotee. For them, He takes on the form of the holy name.
A nice way to understand Krishna’s position respective to a particular engagement or object is to analyze some common titles given to members of society. A general is especially noteworthy in an army. To defend the innocent public, a fighting class, one given to chivalry, bravery, and the protection of the innocent, is required. In an ideal world there would never be war, but from studying the history of human civilization, we see that there actually cannot be peace without some sort of definitive military victory. The nature of the mode of passion is such that desires can never be truly fulfilled. Therefore if one sect or group of citizens is given a particular area of land to live on, they will eventually crave more. If a particular ethnic group is assigned an area to live in, they will naturally ask the question, “Well, why can’t I get more land? What entitles everyone else to have more than we do?” These are certainly legitimate questions, for as soon as the governing authorities provide a preference or benefit to one group, they must behave the same way for others. Otherwise the government is not functioning properly, as each person has their right to life, freedom and the ability to pursue happiness granted to them by God.
Historically, it’s been seen that whenever land is divided specifically based on religious affiliation, the result is an endless tug of war. Since the weaker party, the one unhappy about the amount of land they have been given, cannot achieve an overarching military victory, they must resort to other tactics, such as carefully crafted diplomacy and divide-and-conquer strategies. For peace to be maintained, the ability to defeat opposing elements, those that want conflict, must be there. On a smaller level, within all societies there will be individuals who simply refuse to obey the laws of the land, the social dictates that are meant to provide a peaceful coexistence. Natural laws such as prohibitions on violence against the innocent and the encroachment of others’ property are not always adhered to. When the criminals refuse to curb their ways, the strong arm of punishment, or danda, must take action in order for lawlessness to cease.
In large scale military conflicts, the soldiers for a particular side are arrayed into groups that perform specific tasks. But in order for the soldiers to act in unison, where friendly fire is avoided and the best strategy for achieving victory is followed, a general, a leader of the group, must be present. It goes without saying that the general must be fully capable of leading other troops and remaining level headed. He must be very intelligent as well, for fighting never goes according to plan. Adjustments and new strategies need to be constantly crafted, as the winning party is the one that can best anticipate the next move of the opponent.
Because of the difficulties in managing armed conflict, the general is given respect in society and by others in the military field. Now let’s say that we met someone who claimed to be a general. We’d probably ask them, “How many missions have you successfully led? How many conflicts have you been involved in? What has your experience on the battlefield been like?” Now, what would happen if the person responded with, “Well, I haven’t led any missions. I haven’t been on the battlefield in a long time. Nevertheless, I am still a general.”? Obviously these admissions would call into question their status. For the title of “general” to mean something, there must be a mission, a task where other soldiers are led into battle against an opposing force. In this sense we can think of the mission as being the life of the general.
For similar purposes, employers ask to see a list of past work experience when hiring a new employee. A person can write whatever they want to on a resume, thus making it seem like they are fully qualified for the prospective position. Yet the claims of abilities are not as important as the actual exercise of them. After all, each previous work experience must have an accompanying title. Even if the title is informal and not very descriptive, there will nevertheless be one. If a person claims to have been a manager at a previous job and yet they didn’t actually manage any employees, their title is meaningless. The prospective employee won’t have anything to substantiate their claims of experience.
When Lord Krishna says that He is the penances of the ascetics, it means that He is the life of those dedicated to an austere lifestyle aimed at furthering God consciousness. An ascetic stands out from a fruitive worker by their renunciation. By default, the conditioned living entity adopts the mindset of an animal at the time of birth. Therefore the first inclination is to meet the demands of eating, sleeping, mating and defending. But we know that the human being has the potential to acquire the highest knowledge, which in turn leads to the sharpest intellect. With knowledge comes the ability to further a purpose. There are often debates as to what actually defines intelligence or someone being smart, but deciphering this properly is really quite easy. A smart person is one who can use their mental abilities to further their purpose. A smart worker is one who can do their job efficiently and correctly. An intelligent politician is one who can use their speechmaking and legislating abilities to maintain a strong surge of popularity with the voting public.
Along the same lines, an intelligent human being is one who can make the most of the valuable human form of body. The potential for intelligence is lacking in the animals species for a reason. They are not intended to become God conscious or even transcend the effects of the senses. The human being has the full opportunity to rise above animal life and use their intelligence for furthering the highest gain, that of understanding God. This is why the famous Vedanta-sutras, the favorite scriptural work of mental speculators and Vedantists, opens with the aphorism, athato-brahma-jijnasa, which means “Now is the time for inquiring about Brahman.” The animal can never make this inquiry, nor can it even know what Brahman is. But the human being can, so when there is birth in a human species, this inquiry should be made as soon as possible. Brahman is truth; it is beyond the dualities of aversion and affection, love and hate, heat and cold, life and death, etc. Brahman is pure spirit, so it transcends the temporary manifestations of matter that delude the otherwise intelligent living being into adopting a substandard mode of life, one that fails to meet the true potential for greatness found in the human species.
To make the inquiry about Brahman, the senses must be controlled. This shouldn’t be that difficult to understand. Would we ever think of taking an important exam while intoxicated? Is it wise to step behind the wheel of a car while we are angry, hungry, or suffering in some other way? To understand the most important truths of life, such as the differences between matter and spirit and what the constitutional position of the living entity is, sobriety is a prerequisite. What better way to gain this sobriety of mind than through strict austerities, penances which are difficult to adopt in the beginning stages but which lead to the highest benefit in the end.
Though the human being has the ability to inquire about Brahman, which is just another feature of the Supreme Lord, not everyone will take up this study. Governments today may compel young children to attend school, but there is no instruction given about the makeup of the soul and the source of identity. Rather, the false identifications formed through the influence of false ego are fully endorsed. Citizens in one area identify with the color of their skin, while people in a different land take their identity from their country of origin. Every identification except “I am a spirit soul” is flawed, as the material elements are temporary and never representative of who we really are. The soul is immutable, unchanging and undying. It is not slain when the body is slain.
“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.20)
Because the animalistic influences ensnare the majority of conditioned living entities, those who do actually try to learn about Brahman stand out even more. In days past, such inquiries were made through simultaneous adherence to a life of asceticism. Those interested in the Absolute Truth would seek refuge in the forests, where life was peaceful and quiet. The downside to leaving the civilized parts of the world is that you lose out on many amenities. For those living in cities and suburbs, if you get hungry you can just go to the supermarket. Because of the system of peaceable and voluntary exchange of goods and services, so many different options are available in the store. There are so many different types of food and drink suited to each person’s specific tastes. When the stores are closed there are still the restaurants and fast food places to get food from very quickly.
For the ascetic roaming the forests, fruits and roots are all there is to eat. This is very meager food, and anyone who lives on this diet soon dons an emaciated figure. But eating well is not important to the ascetic, as less reliance on food keeps the mind sober. Too much eating leads to laziness and excessive sleep. Through strict austerities, the ascetic remains sober and thus has more time to contemplate on the Absolute Truth, read the Vedas, teach Vedic wisdom to others, perform sacrifices to propitiate the heavenly figures, and teach others how to perform sacrifices.
Since the ascetics are so unique and praiseworthy, the central aspect of their life, that thing which defines them, becomes even more important and highlighted. Therefore it is not surprising that Lord Krishna, the object of sacrifice and worship, would rightfully claim to be the penances of the ascetic. While asceticism and study of Brahman lead to knowledge of the Absolute Truth, there is still a higher platform that must be reached. Knowledge of Brahman keeps the conditioned soul free from the effects of the senses drawn to material contact. But we know from our own experiences that simply alleviating distresses does not complete the picture. There must be an active engagement for the soul, a set of activities that provides transcendental happiness free of the defects of material sense gratification.
That higher engagement is revealed to the sincere souls looking to elevate past the understanding of Brahman. Since Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, any system which seeks to connect with Him personally would have to be the one that stands head and shoulders above all others. Since Krishna is the reservoir of beauty, auspiciousness and good qualities, the discipline that seeks to connect with Him must involve love. Attraction is what extracts the loving sentiments from the soul, and since Krishna is the most attractive, only He is capable of evoking the strongest loving sentiments from the souls looking for a permanent engagement.
Since it involves pure love, connecting with Krishna is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Devotion to the Divine is actually the ultimate objective, but one that is rarely attained. Searching after Brahman is difficult enough for the human being to accept as a necessity, but understanding the need to surrender fully to God, to make His satisfaction our primary interest in life, is even more difficult to accept. The phenomenal realm operates on selfishness, wherein the person residing within different bodies seeks out their own pleasure first. Yet even in this regard there is nothing to be lost with bhakti. Lord Chaitanya, the preacher incarnation of Godhead, says that the jiva soul, the living entity armed with a choice of either material or spiritual association, has an eternal form, or svarupa. This form is one of a devotee, a lover of God. Since our real form is actually that of a servant of God, by taking up bhakti dedicated to Krishna we actually serve our own interests at the same time.
This is a little difficult to understand at first, as the whole point of unselfishness is to please others. Pleasing Krishna, however, is the best way to make ourselves happy. Many governments around the world say that they put their trust in God, but in order for this claim to be valid there must be a binding aspect, a life to the devotional efforts. Just as ascetics need penances and the generals their missions, the devotees need an active engagement to maintain their status as lovers of God. For the devotees of this age, their life and soul is the holy name of the Lord. Krishna is considered the original form of Godhead, but the Lord actually has thousands of names. The two most important and descriptive ones, Rama and Krishna, are nicely sequenced together in the famous maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
As He is the penances of the ascetics, Krishna is the holy name for the devotees. Without the ability to chant this sound vibration, especially in this day and age where the life of asceticism is very difficult to adopt, the devotees would be unable to maintain their link to the transcendental world. Therefore we should hold on to the holy names and the efficacious mantras in which they are found for dear life, as these sacred objects directly represent the Supreme Lord. Without regularly chanting Krishna’s names, our tongues are no better than serpents, and our mouths no more valuable than snake holes. The auspicious human form of body is meant for finding an outlet for love that never exhausts in the pleasure it provides. As Krishna is the very life of the pure lovers, His name keeps us linked to Him at all times.