“After the destruction of the material body, this spirit soul is one. The spirit soul, due to contact with material nature, gets different types of bodies. When one can see this, he attains spiritual vision; thus being freed from differentiations like man, animal, big, low, etc., one becomes beautified in his consciousness and able to develop Krishna consciousness in his spiritual identity.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 13.31 Purport)
Are we not better off when we can see things clearly? Rare is the occasion where willful ignorance can provide benefits, and even when it does, the benefits are only for the short term. Continue with that ignorance long enough and you’ll be in a heap of pain. Thankfully, with the influence of time on the near-term, negative effects can be wiped clean, but when all-devouring time approaches at the end of life, there is nothing we can do to alleviate the situation. That ignorance will come back to bite us, and so there is an urgency to seeing things properly and using that clear vision to steer us in the proper direction.
A wonderful example of the consequences of seeing without a clear vision comes to us from likely the oldest written work in history, the Ramayana. The main characters of that poem that depicts real-life events span the full spectrum of natures. There is the demoniac, represented by the king Ravana and his clan, and there is the divine, represented by Lord Rama and His family. Rama is the Supreme Personality of Godhead as an incarnation, and so to learn about Him the people that love Him most should be consulted. Who better to approach than Sita Devi, Rama’s beloved wife and the virtuous daughter of King Janaka of Mithila?
Very wise in her own right, Sita once pointed out an interesting, yet lesser-known, fact to Ravana. The evil king didn’t see clearly at all. He was drunk off both wine and power, and so he thought he could get whatever he wanted at any time. The young child cries to get milk or a specific toy, but these are provided by the parents. That same practice can’t be continued later on in life unless there is a government around who is equally as blind in providing whatever the crying citizens want, to the detriment of the hard-working tax payers.
Ravana was similar to the crying baby, except he thought he would just kill anyone who stood in his way. Whatever he wanted he would take. For most of his life this motto worked due to his immense strength, which of course was not of his own doing. We don’t control the circumstances of our birth or the qualities we assume. For instance, if our skin color is dark, there is nothing we can do to make it fair. Some people never have to work out a day in their lives and they stay fit throughout, while others work out strenuously in the gym and try to eat right and yet still can’t garner strength and vitality.
“When the time for the destruction of living entities arrives, people are seen to perform activities that endanger themselves due to the influence of that all-devouring time.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.16)
Ravana finally overstepped his bounds; he was to learn his lesson after he took Rama’s wife away from Him through a backhanded plot. Brought back to Lanka against her will, Sita was propositioned by Ravana, who offered to make her his chief queen. She flat out refused him, giving wonderful information about Rama’s divine qualities in the process. She also mentioned that when all-devouring time, kala, which is also known as death, arrives for the living entity, they do things that make that death a reality. This meant that Ravana himself wasn’t entirely responsible for his present actions, for he was acting under the influence of death. His time for quitting the body had arrived, so under the influence of that powerful and yet to be defeated force, he was acting in a way to accelerate the death process.
Ravana invited all-devouring death through his ignorance, following so many sinful acts that he accumulated too many negative reactions to keep in store. A jar can only hold so much of a specific item. Eventually the items will overflow and the jar itself might tip over. This is what happened with Ravana, as killing innocent sages, eating animal flesh, and drinking wine made him a ripe target for punishment. In his fever, he thought that he could take God’s wife, and for that transgression he would pay dearly. He couldn’t wipe the slate clean, as death had called his name, and he had to obey that command. Shri Rama would arrive on the scene to defeat Ravana in battle and rescue Sita.
Practices similar to Ravana’s are adopted today, and though one may not see the immediate negative impact, there will be harmful effects nonetheless. The infamous “beer goggles” are a minor and humorous example of this principle in effect. The person indulges in enough alcohol so that their vision becomes impaired. In that intoxicated state, with the unclear vision they mistakenly take someone they normally wouldn’t find attractive to be attractive. Following through on the illusion, the next day they realize they have created a conjugal relationship with that person, regretting it thereafter. The mistake could have minimal consequences, for they can end the relationship and try to forget about the whole affair, but there is no purification in the process if drinking is continued as a habit afterwards.
Willful ignorance may help us when we watch a movie or attend a dramatic performance, as not knowing that the people on stage are actors allows us to get into the story. But once the performance ends, continuing with that ignorance will not help us. The characters are different people in real life, so if we were to go up to them and treat them as if they were still acting, we would not really know the people we’re talking to. Knowing someone is important if you want to get the right kind of association. For instance, we approach someone wearing a police uniform to help us during dangerous times. We don’t just go up to any person for the same services, for if they are not a police officer they can’t help us in the way that we want.
To find true knowledge, to see things as they are, one requires the eyes of shastra, or scripture. A bona fide book on spirituality goes well beyond dogmatic principles. Just as one can study drama, literature, mathematics, philosophy and a host of other subjects through an intellectual pursuit, the nature of matter and spirit and the influence of time can be studied as a science. As the aim of this discipline is to understand the real properties of the individual, or the self, the study is known as the science of self-realization.
The self is the soul, the identifying agent within the individual. This information is found in texts of the Vedic tradition, but it is also something a sober person can accept. Clarity of vision is seeing the soul within creatures and not being thrown by the outward forms. We see a picture of ourselves from a long time ago and wonder who that person was and what they were doing, but in fact it is the same person who is looking at the picture. We haven’t changed at all, except for our outward features and maybe desires and mindset. But we know that our way of thinking will change going forward, so does that mean that today’s “me” is different from tomorrow’s “me”?
Without knowledge of the soul and its position with respect to the material nature, our vision will always be clouded. We will think that just because nothing bad happens to us after a specific event, the act itself is not sinful. But we know that in other areas the effects don’t manifest right away. The trees blossom flowers at the appropriate season, not when we will them to. The dough must rise and then bake in order for there to be bread, which means that we can’t have bread as soon as we want it. Some action needs to take place, and the results need the appropriate time to manifest.
The clouded vision makes us do things that we shouldn’t and it makes us assume identities that are not permanent. Identification as child, adult, parent, white, black, Hindu, Christian, etc. are flawed because these temporary features will change. The atma, or self, residing within is the constant factor, so that is the only true basis for identity. Yet the vision clouded through the influence of the material nature makes the realization of the self very difficult.
The aim of shastra is to provide both theoretical and practical knowledge. You get the theory about the soul and its unchanging properties and you get the practical application of principles which enable one to take their identity as spirit and then act off of it. The principles to implement are known as brahmacharya, which enable one to see themselves as Brahman, or pure spirit. To know Brahman requires ridding the influence of maya, or the material nature. Since practically everything is maya, brahmacharya principles rely upon renunciation, in which case eating, sleeping, mating and defending are kept to a minimum.
The principles of brahmacharya are difficult to follow, so typically they are taught during the childhood years, when the individual can better be molded. It’s tough to teach an old dog new tricks, and so once an adult reaches past the age of thirty, they become more set in their ways. This means that if sinful behavior and association with maya were the constant factors in everyday life, they will be difficult to remove. Taking Ravana’s example again, he was told on numerous occasions to not go after Sita. After he brought her to Lanka, he was also advised to give her back to Rama and be forgiven. But what could he do? He was too set in his ways to see things properly. It was too late for him.
Know, however, that there is a system of spirituality higher than the basic science of self-realization. It also goes, interestingly enough, to the next step beyond Brahman realization. Devotion to God in a mood of unmotivated love is the highest practice for man, as it is in every spirit soul’s constitution to serve. Service is always seen, as one derives the most pleasure from serving others. The Supreme Lord is the only candidate worthy of unending service from the most number of people, and so the natural outgrowth of the Brahman realization is to take one’s clear vision and use it to bask in the sweetness of God’s vision.
For that sweetness to arrive, one requires a painted image of the features belonging to the Supreme Personality. The Vedas are no short of descriptions in this area, as God’s original form and those of His many personal expansions are described. Sita’s husband is one such expansion, and His qualities are attractive in every way. Shri Krishna is considered the original form, as the transcendental sweetness exists at the highest level in His qualities. The brahmacharya principles bring the pleasure known as brahmasukha, which is akin to always thinking of God as an abstract figure. But know that there is a higher pleasure when the vision is able to gaze upon the sweet transcendental form of the Personality of Godhead. To taste that sweetness is the real mission of life, and by knowing how to address the Supreme Lord, how to call out to Him and ask for His personal intervention in helping us see things clearly, the proper destination will be in our reach. Therefore the wisest souls, who see Krishna so clearly that He remains in front of them even while sleeping, always recite the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
When wearing goggles from drinking beer,
The vision ceases to be clear.
Do things that you normally would not,
In the end regret is all you have got.
Better would have been the proper sight,
Then you could have acted right.
In the same way, as spirit yourself see,
So that in happiness you can be.
Better in devotional service behave,
See always God and yourself save.