“…O son of Kunti, declare it boldly that My devotee never perishes.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.31)
In the Bhagavad-gita, one of the most famous discourses on spirituality ever to take place, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, encourages Arjuna, His cousin and just-turned disciple, to boldly declare it to the world that the Lord’s devotee never perishes. In case there was any doubt on the matter, Arjuna could settle the issue once and for all by making the proclamation at the direct insistence of his teacher and life and soul, the Supreme Lord. But to the keen observer, this sort of proclamation almost seems unnecessary, as the discussions in the Gita open with the issue of eternal life and how the soul is not slain when the body is slain. Indeed, it was Arjuna’s hesitancy to fight and kill members of the opposing army on the eve of a great war that led to his approaching Krishna for guidance. If no one ever really dies, what is the need for proclaiming that devotees never perish? The distinction actually lies in the identity of the individual. Though the spiritual spark never fizzles, when it changes bodies, everything is reset. For the bhakta, since he is devoted to Krishna and on a train going back to the spiritual world, none of his efforts go to waste. Therefore his identity remains intact despite changes in body.
Arjuna was the leading fighter for his side. There was little doubt about the result of the impending war due primarily to Arjuna’s tremendous fighting prowess. Two families were at odds over the right to rule over the kingdom in Hastinapura, which is situated in the area known today as Delhi. The Pandavas had the rightful claim to the city, but the Kauravas had unjustly usurped control. Now the war to end all wars was going to settle the dispute. Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers, was an expert bow warrior, as this was the weapon of choice in the time period that these events took place. Never mind that Arjuna had Lord Krishna on his side as his chariot driver, the Pandavas had all they needed in the skillful mastery of the military arts found in Arjuna.
Despite their advantage, there was one slight problem. Just prior to the war’s commencement, Arjuna became hesitant to fight. He wasn’t afraid of losing. In fact, his feelings were rooted in just the opposite direction. He was fearful of what would happen if his side won. How could he live a life full of royal opulence knowing that teachers and cousins fighting for the other side were slain by his arrows? How could he enjoy a single day of life knowing that others had been deprived of their ability to live theirs? He would rather have renounced everything, taken up the life of a beggar, and allowed others to maintain their vital life breath. His thinking was similar to that of a good parent who risks everything for the health and safety of their children. Who could argue against the validity of Arjuna’s feelings? Shouldn’t we all follow our heart?
“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)
Somewhat surprisingly, Lord Krishna stepped in and sort of laughingly chided Arjuna for his thinking. Not that Krishna intervened without being asked. Arjuna had made up his mind that he wanted to quit, but he was not fully convinced that it was the right course of action. He put the matter before Krishna to see what should be done. The Lord told Arjuna that his behavior was not very becoming of a warrior or a learned man. The central teaching of the Vedas is that we are not our bodies. What we consider as birth and death are simply the acceptance and rejection of temporary forms, with the soul remaining the vital force the whole time. Lord Krishna reminded Arjuna that the soul is not slain when the body is slain. Since the modes of material nature handle the different changes that take place to the body, it is silly to think that anyone can be killed or that any person can be solely responsible for another’s death.
This instruction was given with a purpose. It was Arjuna’s duty to fight in this war, for if he didn’t protect the rules of society, the laws governing man’s conduct, then who would? His desire to quit was rooted in ignorance, the idea that a person’s bodily comforts correlate to happiness. Whether Arjuna wanted to fight or not, the members fighting for the opposing army would die anyway. This is how nature works. We can try to eat right, exercise, sleep enough, and stay away from dangerous behavior, but death can still come at any time. Nature is a much more powerful force than we are. Thinking that we are capable of permanently stopping death, changing the temperature of the earth, or evolving into new species without divine intervention is simply ludicrous.
For the benefit of Arjuna and future generations of sincere listeners, Krishna continued His discourse by delving into more important matters, such as the reason for existence and how to break free of the cycle of birth and death known as reincarnation. First, instruction on the differences between matter and spirit and the need for discharging one’s occupational duties was presented. This was followed by a brief overview of the ancient system of yoga, which as a Sanskrit word means nothing more than “addition”, or “plus”. Yoga is the union between the individual soul and the Supersoul, who is also known as the all-pervading witness. The individual soul travels through various species, and the Supersoul comes along for the ride. Yet the Supersoul, or Paramatma, is above the dualities of material existence and does not get mixed up in the enjoyments and activities the individual atma chooses to dive into.
If the Supersoul remains neutrally situated, what is the reason for its presence? Just as Krishna was Arjuna’s charioteer, and thus an overseer, the Supersoul is there to offer us guidance. He is the very same Krishna but kindly resting within our heart. As Arjuna was wise enough to seek Krishna’s guidance and fully abide by His orders, any soul can surrender unto the Supersoul and be guided from within. How to connect with the Supersoul, or God, is addressed in the yoga system, which can follow several different routes. One method of yoga involves study of Vedanta, or the conclusion of all knowledge. Vedanta philosophy is especially attractive to those who are taken by logic, reasoning, and study of esoteric matters. This path is known as jnana-yoga.
Another type of yoga is karma-yoga, where one performs their occupational duties and renounces the resulting fruits. In one sense, the advice given to Arjuna to fight was a recommendation to follow karma-yoga. Karma is distinguished from jnana because there is explicit physical work performed. Fighting is a lot different from studying; thus karma is marked by its specific actions that have reactions. But when the fruits of work are renounced, sacrificed, or simply minimalized in importance, while the consciousness is simultaneously developed, the behavior can be classified as karma-yoga.
Then there is meditational yoga, where one finds a secluded place and sits in a certain position for hours on end. The popular yoga classes of today have their roots in this practice, though the original system is meant for connecting with the Supersoul. If the conditions are just right, if there is strict celibacy and tight controls over eating and sleeping, the yogi can make tremendous advancement. Through their connection with God’s expansion residing within the heart, the yogi feels tremendous self-satisfaction, internal feelings of bliss.
When hearing of these different methods of yoga, especially the meditational system, Arjuna thought that they were too difficult to perform. After all, who can control the mind, which acts like horses let off from their leash and running in every which direction? To address His concerns, Krishna revealed a few more intimate details, information known only to those who are not envious of the Supreme Lord. Who could ever be jealous of God? It is in fact this envy that serves as the root cause behind the creation of the land we currently occupy. If there weren’t any souls desiring to challenge God in the abilities of creating, maintaining, destroying and enjoying, the earth and the other planets would never be created. Temporary manifestations are there to deal with temporary bouts of insanity, wherein otherwise pure souls think they can exceed Krishna’s stature as the Supreme Person.
“And of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 6.47)
Krishna told Arjuna that of all yogis, he who always thinks of the Lord in love and devotion is the best. The bhakta, or devotee, always chants the Lord’s glories and does everything for Krishna. Since they never fail to think of Krishna, those who follow bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, are far superior to other yogis. Nevertheless, for Arjuna there was still concern over the time of death. The soul’s consciousness is measured while quitting the body, and depending on the nature of that consciousness a new type of body is granted. The real aim of any yoga practice is to have a purified consciousness at the time of death, which will then result in a spiritual body assumed in the next life. Krishna says that anyone who thinks of Him at the time of death will never have to return to the material world. They will assume a nature similar to His, i.e. they will receive a purely spiritual form whose body and soul are not any different.
The oneness resulting from thinking of God at the time of death does not create equality with Krishna. Rather, the oneness relates to the relationship that is created. In a classroom there is an equality shared between all the participants, in that they are equally part of the whole object that is the classroom. For there to be a class, there must be a teacher and a set of students. If either party is absent, the object in question is invalidated. A general must have a mission in order for his title to mean anything. Similarly, a spirit soul must have God in their lives in order for their true dharma, their essential characteristic, to be considered active. The liberated soul joins the eternal pastimes of Shri Krishna in the spiritual land, hence completing the oneness of the relationship for them, with one party always remaining superior, and the other acting in the interests of the superior with a loving attitude.
But to think of God at the time of death is very difficult. Arjuna was concerned over what would happen to the yogi who failed to achieve pure Krishna consciousness by the time of death. Krishna told him that devotional efforts never go to waste. Should a devotee not attain full perfection in the present life, they get to start their devotional efforts in the next life from the point that they stopped in the previous one. Krishna later revealed that the devotee never perishes. Rather than state this fact Himself, the Lord had Arjuna declare it. If someone who actually practices bhakti-yoga makes the proclamation, it is more believable. God can say anything, but His statements are always challenged, as is even His existence.
There are many historical incidents that show devotees remaining fully committed in their devotional efforts despite outside impediment. The famous Prahlada Maharaja, the five year old son of a king, was harassed by his father Hiranyakashipu constantly. The demon king did not like that Prahlada was a great devotee of Vishnu, who is another form of Godhead essentially equal to Krishna. Prahlada was peaceful in his devotional efforts, but his father couldn’t tolerate this devotion shown to his greatest enemy. Therefore he tried to kill Prahlada in so many ways. But as was declared by Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna’s devotees never perish. Prahlada was protected by divine intervention during each and every attack. Finally, Vishnu Himself came as Lord Narasimhadeva to kill Hiranyakashipu.
The astute listener at this point may raise the issue of whether Prahlada lived forever. “Sure he was protected when he was five years old, but did he not eventually renounce his body? Haven’t devotees and saints of the past left this world? If they were practicing devotional service, how did they die?” These are wonderful questions, as they show that the statements presented by Krishna in the beginning of His discourse with Arjuna were listened to attentively. When the Lord told Arjuna that the soul is not slain when the body is slain, the statement was meant to make him understand that the essence of individuality, the identity of the life form, always remains the same. This instruction was required, because Arjuna was basing the identities of his family and friends fighting for the other side off of their bodily forms. For instance, Arjuna was worried about having to kill Bhishmadeva, a grandfather to both the Kurus and Pandavas. Arjuna was simply worried about the material comforts of his grandfather, thinking that they would be lost once death arrived. But this loss occurs regardless. Any person who associates with their body has a very painful death, because what they think is their life is essentially taken away from them. All of the soldiers assembled on the battlefield received their identities from their souls and not their bodies or their material comforts. Thus Arjuna had no reason to lament over their potential deaths.
There is a reset of the body type, however, when death comes. The living entity must again go through the learning process and the spinning wheel of acceptance and rejection. When Krishna says that the devotees never perish, the corresponding realization is that the non-devotees do perish. Since the soul is always eternal, this perishability refers to their material way of life, their association with a temporary body and temporary enjoyments. Hiranyakashipu was a great example of this. He thought that because he had conquered the world and amassed great strength and wealth that he was immortal in his position. He forgot that death could come and take everything away. Indeed, once the next life starts, all of the previous life’s possessions and gains get tossed aside.
With the devotee, their identity comes from their fixed position as eternal servant of God. Therefore even when they change bodies, their identity does not leave them. They only pray to forever remain engaged in Krishna’s service. Since this is a desire wholly approved of and encouraged by Krishna, the Supreme Lord ensures that their service continues uninterrupted. Thus anyone who reignites the flame of devotion just ready to be lit within the heart can be assured that their practices in yoga will never go in vain. Arjuna would succeed in conquering his mental demons and also the enemies fighting for the other side. To this day he is always associated with Krishna, for the two remain together as the Supreme Lord and His dear friend and disciple. Wherever there is Krishna and Arjuna, there is victory in devotional service. Therefore anyone who hears the wonderful teachings put forth on that famous day on the battlefield of Kurukshetra will be able to take up devotional service with full confidence, knowing that their identity as Krishna-dasa, or servant of God, will never leave them.