“When the positive form is realized, the negative forms are automatically eliminated. Therefore, with the development of the bhakti cult, with the application of positive service to the positive form, one naturally becomes detached from inferior things, and he becomes attached to superior things.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.2.7 Purport)
If something is bad for you, just avoid it. If you keep inviting pain into the mind by thinking about something traumatic from the past, just stop thinking about it. If certain foods give you bodily discomfort after consumption, don’t eat them. If you feel lingering pains in the stomach and have to constantly vomit from intoxication, stop drinking. These solutions seem simple enough, no? The problem is that to actually consciously avoid something is very difficult. Imagine being forced to sit in one place for hours on end knowing that you aren’t allowed to get up or leave the room. This is what passengers aboard long flights face all the time. Yet instead of just trying to not think about their journey, they try to focus on something else, keeping the mind engaged on those positive things that simultaneously maintain their emotional wellbeing. This technique works with something trivial like an airline flight, and it can work with spirituality as well, which represents activity on the most macro level.
Spiritual life is the antithesis of material life. By antithesis, we mean the opposite in terms of both engagement and outcome. Eating soup is somewhat the opposite of eating ice cream, but the outcomes aren’t that much different. The body is nourished in both cases, and depending on the disposition of the consuming person, the food items can be quite tasty. Spiritual life exists for finding a permanent happiness, which is secured through activities not immediately known.
Are there naturally known activities? Think of what a child does. Play all day, eat to refuel, sleep when you get tired, and then continue playing. With proper conditioning, there is some regulation imposed, and the kinds of play may change a little, but the natural instincts are still there. While the mind may be driven to indulge in specific activities, the outcomes aren’t always palatable. For instance, if the instinct is to play instead of study, the outcome from following that inclination is a failing grade on an assignment or test, which further harms the chances of successfully completing the course. Education for children is required for becoming self-sufficient later on in life, when parents aren’t around to clean up after your messes, when you are yourself responsible for paying for life’s essentials.
“O best among the Bharatas [Arjuna], four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me — the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.16)
When the enjoyment from activities following natural inclinations wears thin, when the mind is tired of the repeating cycle of happiness and dejection, when the living entity has grown fatigued of swinging on the pendulum of acceptance and rejection, answers are sought to life’s most difficult questions. In the Bhagavad-gita, it is said that the people who initially approach God in a devotional mood are of four kinds. There are the inquisitive, the desirers of wealth, those looking for alleviation from suffering, and those in knowledge who are looking to go beyond their realization of a formless Absolute Truth. The last group, when following the devotional path, is considered the best because they are already in a good position, though it doesn’t matter at what point one starts. Where they end up is what counts.
The fact that activities in spiritual life are considered different from our other indulgences is well known. This is because the beginning of any dive into spirituality involves a review of the restrictions. “Okay, if I follow this religion, I won’t be allowed to do this. In this other religion, this is allowed but other things are not. This particular religion seems way too strict for me.” The prohibitions are there for a reason. Just as activities that cause us pain should be avoided, those pursuits with a faulty aim need to be rejected outright; otherwise no progress can be made towards a higher destination. Lest we think we’re all going to the same place, in no other area of endeavor does just any behavior result in a uniform destination. You can’t just board any train and expect to go where you want to. You can’t just follow any tract in life and expect to have the same results that others who follow different tracts have.
The initial restrictions in spiritual life are not meant to be the end though. They are meant to foster a change in consciousness, a mindset where the proper outlook in life can be used. Why is this necessary? Imagine trying to read a book while you are intoxicated. Imagine trying to pay attention during a conversation with your friend while your mind constantly replays the traumatic incident that just occurred. Imagine trying to sit through a play performance while you are in constant pain due to indigestion. Obviously these negative conditions are distractions; they don’t allow you to focus on the task at hand.
In a similar manner, if the living entity is mired in activity that keeps it distracted, there is no way to properly decipher which actions should be adopted and which ones shouldn’t. The restrictions in spiritual life are there to bring about sobriety of thought, so that when the decision is voluntarily made in favor of service to that one person who can accept everyone’s service without interruption, the enjoyment that results will be unmatched. Moreover, the commitment to the decision will be firmer once negative distractions are eliminated.
So, what are the most important restrictions? What works best at keeping the mind away from sobriety? In the Vedic tradition, the spiritual law codes passed down since the beginning of time, the most harmful sinful activities are meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. A sin is an act that carries a negative consequence. Think of doing something the wrong way and paying for it later on. Stealing is wrong not only because of the potential for punishment from governing bodies it carries, but also because of the harmful effects it has on one’s karma. That good and bad reactions come as the result of previous work applied is inherently understood by so many people, though its scientific basis may not be. The fact that the reactions can continue to arrive after the fact isn’t given consideration either.
“Just as a tree starts to blossom during the proper season, so the doer of sinful deeds inevitably reaps the horrible fruit of their actions at the appropriate time.” (Lord Rama speaking to Khara, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 29.8)
But time delivers all results at the appropriate moments. For instance, if we were to mail in our absentee ballot in a particular election, if election day comes without the voting board receiving our ballot, this doesn’t stop the old mail from being delivered. Indeed, in close elections, the people counting the votes wait a few weeks for absentee ballots that might have been mailed from overseas to arrive. The end point of the election is reached, but the reactions to past work are still coming in.
In a similar manner, the sinful and pious acts we take up accumulate future effects. They don’t always arrive when we want them to. Death is not the end; it’s the beginning of a new life. The circumstances of the next birth are determined by the results that come pouring in like the absentee ballots after an election. From this example we have a rudimentary understanding of karma and how it continuously operates.
Taking away sin not only removes the harmful effects due to arrive in the future, it also has a positive effect on consciousness. One who doesn’t perpetrate unnecessary violence against animals has a better chance of understanding Brahman, the all-pervading spirit. Think of every life form you see on a given day. They are all equal in their constitutional position, but the dresses they assume are different. Spend a day at the shopping mall and you’ll see people dressed in so many different ways, but this doesn’t mean that they are inherently different. The physical characteristics assumed as the result of past karma don’t create dualities in existence. The ant, the germ, the cow, the learned man, the poor man, the woman, the child, and so on are all the same. One who thinks that the animal has no soul will be stupefied by the concept of Brahman, and thus be stunted in their spiritual growth.
Gambling, intoxication and illicit sex are the most effective weapons at keeping consciousness unsteady. This should be rather obvious based on an honest personal assessment made by anyone who has ever indulged in these activities. Give up drinking and you won’t have to worry about so many problems. Gambling can not only make you lose your house, it can make you lose your mind. Illicit connection with members of the opposite sex leads to the most problems, both financial and emotional. The marriage system was instituted by the original person to allow for sex life to be conducted in a regulated manner, where the mental disturbances would be limited.
A sober person has a better chance at realizing Brahman and thus knowing that the forms accepted by spirit souls in their travels through reincarnation are composed of ignorance. Attachment to temporary things and aversion to divine love accompany a material existence. Therefore the restrictions in a bona fide discipline of spirituality focus on detaching one from their senses tied to their temporary form. If I know that my clothes will be taken off at the end of the day, I have a better chance of understanding that the clothes aren’t the most important thing in my life. One who knows the temporary nature of material life understands that their spiritual identity is what counts and that temporary gains and losses aren’t that important.
But detachment from the negative forms is not the ultimate aim, and neither is focusing on elimination of the negative the best way to make progress. Spiritual life is so difficult to accept for the person attached to sense gratification because all that is known is the negative. Why would someone want to voluntarily punish themselves when all that is promised is a better condition in the afterlife, of which nothing is concretely known?
In the highest system of spirituality, which champions transcendental love, the focus on the positive is emphasized more. While the material forms give us so much misery and act as the playing field that yields future fruits of karma, there is a positive form that is meant to be our eternal source of pleasure. This positive form belongs to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna. Not to be confused with a sectarian figure important to just the Hindus, Krishna is the very embodiment of pure spirit. He is all-attractive, kind to His devotees, and universally benevolent. Every type of energy emanates from Him, and all knowledge and renunciation are meant to culminate in service to Him in unalloyed devotion, a spirit of work that is accepted voluntarily.
What’s so amazing about Krishna’s positive form is that association with it automatically purifies the other forms that were formerly negative. What does this mean exactly? Think of using a spoon to try to cut something. A spoon is not sharp, so it is practically useless in trying to cut food. In this scenario we can think of the spoon as negative, something to be renounced. But if we want to eat something like soup, the spoon is the handiest tool. When the spoon is used properly, it becomes an invaluable utensil.
Similarly, the material bodies we are given by nature are meant to act in God’s service. We have ears so that we can listen to talks about Krishna and songs glorifying Him. We have hands so that we can wash the floors of the sacred houses holding discussions about Krishna. We have eyes so that we can gaze at the deity manifestation, which uses material elements to show forms that depict Krishna’s spiritual attributes. We have a stomach to enjoy foodstuff that is first offered to Krishna and then returned as His mercy, or prasadam.
The positive form reveals that service to God is done for our enjoyment. It is not meant as a punishment or a way to get people to stop following others that we may or may not like. If the negative forms are used properly, then there is no question of renunciation. If I am immersed in Krishna consciousness, what need do I have to constantly worry about avoiding certain behavior? If someone completely quits drinking, do they have to worry about driving drunk? Or even better, if a person is constantly high on life, do they have to worry about the temptation to drink?
The superior things in life are those that are related to God. The Lord has many forms, not just His original of Krishna. Though everything is God, not all objects carry His personal presence. Following the instructions of a bona fide spiritual master dedicated to the Personality of Godhead can help us decipher where the personal presence is present and where it isn’t. In the highest state of understanding, Krishna is remembered everywhere; thus eliminating the need for focusing on the negative. Ascension to God consciousness is best facilitated through constant recitation of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
Focus on Shri Krishna, the most positive form,
To hearing His names recited let your heart warm.
Realization of the Lord’s form more important,
Than just knowing that spirit and body are different.
Rejection of the bad leads to our benefit,
But bliss must be found before body we quit.
Otherwise the cycle of karma will continue,
Which brings misery and pleasures that are few.
Material body is nature’s gift to you,
For connecting with God to be used.
Categories: four regulative principles