“We are searching for a friend to give us peace and tranquility. That friend is Krishna, God. Just make friendship with Him; you’ll find everyone to be your friend. Because God is situated in everyone’s heart, if you make friendship with God, He will dictate from within so that you will also be treated in a friendly way.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna Consciousness The Topmost Yoga System, Ch 9)
It’s a typical day. You’re riding along in your automobile, paying scant attention to what’s in front of you. For experienced drivers travelling on a highway at steady speeds with minimal traffic, the navigation essentially takes care of itself, with the mind on autopilot, left to contemplate other things. It’s not that the driving is done recklessly; rather, the instincts of the driver take over. In this relaxed state, nothing is worse than seeing a police officer come up behind you. “Okay, let me slow down and change lanes. He’s approaching pretty fast, so let’s just hope he doesn’t get behind me.” On most days nothing happens, but today is not your lucky day. The officer comes up right behind you and flashes on his lights. Caught! Now you have to pull over. As the officer approaches your stopped car, you remember that you have a way out, a little card that will hopefully make the officer go easy on you. What you consider a “get out of jail free” card is really just something given to friends, family and well-wishers of police officers. When you show the officer your license, you happen to slip in this card, which is hopefully tied to the officer’s particular organization, be it state, city, or county police. Seeing the card, the officer gives you a stern warning, but no ticket. Whew! You made it.
In the bigger picture, this entire world we live in is managed by a larger governing body known as nature, and its rules are not so biased. Nevertheless, if we get on the good side of the owner, something that can’t happen through payments or claims of ancestry, we won’t have to live under the prison rules. On the contrary, the prison then turns into a playground.
The comparison of the material world to a prison house is one commonly made by Vaishnava preachers, those who are dedicated to Lord Krishna or one of His non-different expansions like Lord Vishnu or the other incarnations. The comparison is understandable based on the information presented in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, which reveal that Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the entity most of the world refers to as God. The material world is not directly related to God, though. Just as the prison house is reserved for those who violate the laws of the state, the phenomenal realm serves as the abode of the wayward spirit souls who desire to not be in God’s association in a loving mood. This is a unique viewpoint on the world, because under the goals of fruitive activity and sense enjoyment supported by most faiths, both religious and nonreligious, there is nothing really detrimental about life on earth. If anything, the land represents a sort of vacation, one which will end in ascension to heaven in the afterlife, provided that there is a basic acknowledgment of a higher power made.
Aside from being substantiated by the authority of the Vedas, the comparison to the prison house and the reason for the living entities sentencing are logical. Accompanying life in prison is the rule that one cannot leave until he has rehabilitated himself, a change which is determined by a review of the parole board, which judges the prisoner’s attitude, demeanor and overall desires. Similarly, at the time of death, when the spirit soul quits their body, the commanders of nature measure the soul’s desires found within the consciousness. If there is even a hint of material association craved, a renewed sentence in the prison house is granted. This is actually very kind on the part of the higher authorities. Why should there be automatic ascension to heaven when the person doesn’t desire it?
Aside from the fact that one is forced to go there against their will, the primary detriment to living in prison is the there is limited activity and enjoyment. The area of the prison is very small, and the activities are tightly monitored. In this sense, life in the material world, which follows repeating patterns and cycles, is not all that different from the prison. During youth this correlation is difficult to detect, but once adulthood is reached the repetition is much more evident. If it weren’t, there would be no such things as mid-life crises and impulse buys. For the student, life is always changing, as there is promotion to a new class in subsequent years. Adults, however, can go entire decades without having any change to their lifestyle. Go to work five days a week, relax on the weekends, and then repeat the same cycle the following week.
For the student, likely the best day of each year is when school lets out, as there is no responsibility or work for the next few months. The adults almost never have this luxury. Even if they are off from work, the responsibilities pertaining to family and home must be met. In this sense life becomes very much like a prison. Most of the day is spent in an office or at the jobsite. At night the worker is too tired to do anything else, so they just rest inside the home. There may be some fun on the weekends, but the return to the grind is inevitable.
“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.16)
Now just imagine that after having been spun around this wheel for an entire lifetime, you are forced to repeat it all over again. The miseries of birth, old age, disease and death return after having served so long in the prison-like environment of the material world. This repetition is guaranteed for as long as desire is not changed. Unlike with the prison house holding hardened criminals, a simple desire to have a higher association grants escape from the cycle of birth and death, that wheel of suffering known as the samsara-chakra.
There are different ways to get that needed change in desire. One way is to continually perform your work and not have any attachment to the fruits. For instance, maintain your family and home but don’t hanker after having a big house or a fancy car. Just do your job and don’t sweat the small stuff. At the same time abide by religious principles, such as adhering to fasting days and giving in charity at the appropriate times.
Another option is to study Vedanta philosophy, wherein the differences between matter and spirit are carefully analyzed. “Oh, so I’m a spirit soul and not my body? I see now; this makes a lot of sense. Therefore my suffering is actually caused by material elements and nature, and I am transcendental to all of this. Let me study this some more.” As further knowledge of the laws of spiritual science and self-realization is gathered, eventually the misery causing activities can be renounced.
“The yogi who knows that I and the Supersoul within all creatures are one worships Me and remains always in Me in all circumstances.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 6.31)
A third option is to try meditational yoga. Rather than work with detachment or study philosophy which is beyond the comprehension of the mind, just find a quiet place and meditate. Limit your food intake and sleep, and remain completely celibate. Sitting in the proper postures, contemplate on the Supersoul resting within the heart. The individual souls go through reincarnation fueled by material desires, and the Supersoul comes along for the ride, even though it has no obligation to abide by nature’s laws. Rather, the Supersoul is a plenary expansion of the giant storehouse of energy, Shri Krishna, who is God.
These three options are viable and valid in their own right, but a more direct approach is to connect with the person who manages the prison house, the owner of everything matter and spirit, in a loving way. Bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, seeks to connect the yogi with Krishna in a friendly relationship through regularly chanting His names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. The holy name is not different from the Supreme Person it addresses. Bhakti is actually the culminating stage of yoga practice, the summit of the mountain of activity in the material existence for those who want out of the prison-like environment.
The cop who lets us off the hook because of the card we show him does so as a courtesy to other officers. We go from being a culprit to a friend because of our association. Similarly, when our friend is Krishna, when we are known to regularly chant His name out of affection free of any desire for making gains in the prison house, the authority figures, the people running the show, understand that we should be treated the right way and that our business is not related to anything in the material world. When there is competition for personal sense gratification, there must be inhibiting forces, as no one can reign supreme over everyone else. God is the only Supreme Controller, so the very desire to become the most powerful or richest person is flawed. Those tainted by this hankering are cast into the material ocean, where they get to futilely compete for temporary titles. As no one can ever become equal to Krishna in status, such competition eventually results in misery every time.
A bhakta, or devotee, is not interested in this competition. They may have found their way into the prison house, but their only desire is to love Krishna as much as possible. Therefore the higher authorities will ensure that they have the necessary tools to carry out their service. Who would ever think of being unfriendly to someone who just reads about Krishna’s pastimes found in texts like the Ramayana and Shrimad Bhagavatam? Who would harbor hatred for a person who has no desire to amass large amounts of wealth or enjoy with many members of the opposite sex? Who would have resentment for someone who simply speaks of the glories of God and tries to get others to love Him even more than they do?
“One who works in devotion, who is a pure soul, and who controls his mind and senses, is dear to everyone, and everyone is dear to him. Though always working, such a man is never entangled.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 5.7)
It must be noted that not everyone will treat a bhakta fairly or kindly, but this doesn’t mean the favoritism from Krishna is not present. After all, the primary result of remaining linked to God in consciousness is that an unambiguous indication is given to the higher authorities that release from the cycle of birth and death is desired. In this respect no ill-treatment or inhibiting force can stop salvation from occurring. What’s even more wonderful is that the place that was previously viewed to be a prison turns into a field of endless opportunities for service. Our friends are our equals with whom we share experiences and emotions. With Krishna, our friendship with Him is facilitated through glorification. The more we are able to speak about and praise the sweetheart situated in the spiritual sky holding a flute in His hands and wearing a peacock feather in His hair, the happier we will be.
This shouldn’t be very difficult to understand, as the human being is naturally inclined towards praising others. Even rampant criticism and strong dislike are rooted in love, as they are the inverse emotions of the loving propensity. The postgame shows aired on television after sporting events essentially follow two paths. There is praise for the winning team and criticism for the losing team. When a player retires, there is the retirement ceremony and maybe the retiring of the jersey; both occasions which allow for others to offer praise and worship in the form of attendance and applause.
The human being would much rather be for something than against it. Since Krishna exists eternally and has an endless reservoir of divine qualities, there is no exhaustion in praising Him. Even if we are not capable of composing beautiful poetry, songs that tug at the heartstrings, or books describing His pastimes, simply reciting His name in a loving way is enough to sufficiently praise Him. This is why sankirtana-yajna, or the sacrifice of chanting the holy names of the Lord, is the single most recommended spiritual practice for the current age. Kirtana is often associated with music, but at its root the word means “describing” or “praising”. What better way to salute our friend than to sing about His glories every single day? How can any place be considered a prison when all the time in it is spent singing, dancing, and crying tears of joy over the exhibitions of divine love and compassion coming from Shri Krishna and His numerous incarnations and devotees?
With our coworkers, family members, and sometimes even our friends, we are beholden to their interests because of the relationships they have to us. Though we are intimately tied to Krishna because of His presence within our hearts as the Supersoul, fulltime devotion to Him is actually rooted in a defeat, or a victory depending on how you look at it. The sweet smiling face of Shyamasundara, which melts away the pride of even the proudest person, and the loving exchanges the Lord has with His friends, family and the gopis, win over the heart of the hardened criminal who has served more than enough of their sentence in the material world. When Krishna’s divine qualities conquer over our false ego, the result will be a friendship that keeps us forever free from the negative influence of the punishing land known as the material world. Just as there is no better friend to have than Krishna, there is no better place to reside than the spiritual land of Goloka Vrindavana. By following the principles of bhakti-yoga, our Friend can make sure that we reach that imperishable land in the next life.