“The highest perfectional work of charity is to give people in general immunity from the anxieties of material existence. This can be done only by performing activities in devotional service to the Lord.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.7.41 Purport)
Devoid of a meaningful relationship with another personality, even those who are supposedly religiously inclined take to the “service to man” route as their way of life. To them, to serve their fellow man is their way to serve God, for they don’t know for sure who God is or what He likes. In breaking down the actual service that takes place in such scenarios, it is seen that material miseries are still present. The service is offered, there is some good feeling on the part of the donor, but then the recipient is still left with miseries. Only in service to the real God, who is the complete whole, will lasting benefits trickle down to the general populace. One of those benefits is immunity from material miseries.
“The threefold miseries are (1) those miseries which arise from the mind and body, (2) those miseries inflicted by other living beings, and (3) those miseries arising from natural catastrophes over which one has no control.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.1.2 Purport)
The miseries of life can be grouped into three categories. There are those caused by natural forces. Hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis and the like cannot be controlled by man. Of course the foolish, who don’t understand the presence of a higher controller, will try to blame automobiles, gasoline, political leaders, and even nations as a whole for causing changes to the weather patterns, but in fact such forces of nature are so strong that no collection of ordinary living entities could ever influence them. These events are grouped into the miseries known as adhidaivika, or those controlled by the divine forces.
Then there are the miseries caused by other living entities. Someone cuts into our lane without signaling and we get angry. Someone is driving erratically because they are talking on their cellphone. Someone yells at us for no apparent reason. Someone strikes us in a violent manner. These are miseries caused by other living forces. These miseries are known as adhibhautika, or those caused by other bhutas, or living entities.
Then there are the self-inflicted wounds. I know that I shouldn’t worry about my favorite hockey team’s upcoming game in the Stanley Cup Finals, but I am concerned nonetheless. It is silly, I know. It’s just a game. The results are often determined by which way the puck bounces. One team gets good fortune, while the other doesn’t. This year’s champ is next year’s chump. In spite of knowing all this, I still get very sad when my team loses, especially if they were so close to winning. This misery is borne of the body and mind, and it is known as adhyatmika, or that coming from the self.
Service to man does nothing to stop any of these miseries. If I open up a hospital, perhaps I can put a temporary hold on adhyatmika miseries. Disease comes from the self, so by treating the individual, I can ease the burden of such pains. If I open a shelter, it helps others from miseries caused by nature, such as the chilling cold and the blazing heat. If I teach others to be kind, to be cool-tempered, and to not hit their spouses, some adhibhautika miseries will be alleviated.
Yet nowhere in this service is there immunity. You cure one disease, but this doesn’t stop disease from coming again. You give some relief from hunger, but then what? The person must eat again. And what about the people who are eating just fine? Are they not susceptible to other miseries? Indeed, the wealthy business mogul has to constantly worry about maintaining his empire. A competitor can rise up and knock him off his pedestal. Think of the cellphone wars. One company is on top today, but so many others are vying to unseat the champion. If that happens, the stock price of the leader will fall. Having once been at the top, the fall to the bottom is mighty painful.
Service to God, which is what every person inherently wants to do, does grant immunity. It comes both in the present term and the afterlife. Examples of this are found in history. The residents of Vrindavana a long time ago weren’t very wealthy. They didn’t have much strength, nor were they cunning enough to align with more powerful forces in government. They were innocent farm people. One time, through no fault of their own, they were hit with a torrential downpour that threatened to wash them away. The Supreme Lord, in His personal form, arrived on the scene and granted protection. This was due to the residents’ service. They served God at His direction, and because of this they were immune to the miseries borne of the higher forces of nature.
From this service miseries of the mind are also eradicated because the greatest source of mental discomfort is uncertainty over the future. In service to God, the future destination is known with certainty. Statements from authorized texts like the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam give both a general and detailed description of what awaits the soul who is God conscious at the end of life.
“And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.5)
That fruit of thinking of God at the time of death brings a permanent end to the threefold miseries. You attain whatever state you think of at death. If you think of someone who is immune to the threefold miseries, you will join Him. If He is immune, He makes sure that His associates are immune too.
Activities in devotion include hearing, chanting, remembering, worshiping, and offering prayers. They give relief from the anxieties of material existence because they cast aside the concerns over eating, sleeping, mating and defending. If I am not God conscious, I will always worry about how I am going to eat, how I am going to sleep, and how I am going to enjoy. The animals get all these things in due course, and they don’t have to worry about them. Therefore why should the more intelligent human species be so concerned with basic necessities?
In fact, without God consciousness there is only worry. From top to bottom, from rich to poor, there is only anxiety over the struggle that is life. There is hankering over what one wants and lamentation over what one doesn’t have. If in charity I give someone only more sources of anxiety, am I really helping them? On the other hand, if I give them the gift of devotional service, bhakti-yoga, I offer them an endless engagement, something that invigorates the soul. It is something that can be practiced by any person under any circumstance. The same can’t be said of any material activity. Material is limited to the specific circumstances, whereas spirit can remain vibrant anywhere.
Explicit instruction is obviously the best gift in this regard, but simply following devotion in one’s own life sets a great example. Regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare,” respecting innocent life by not eating meat, keeping the mind sober by avoiding intoxication, and remaining focused by avoiding illicit sex instantiates the theoretical high-quality life for others to replicate. The sound of the holy name is the most important, as it purifies both the chanter and anyone listening. Chanting in love is bhakti-yoga, and so by itself it is an effective means of charity, one that eventually grants immunity from material miseries.
Disease, oppression and tornadoes set free,
Material life’s miseries in categories three.
If charity to someone I will give,
Must ensure in anxiety not to live.
If threefold miseries still there,
Not fruitful is my attention and care.
In bhakti-yoga reach the way out,
Find God, who resides within and without.
Know that by miseries He’s not affected,
Same for His devotees, like in Vrindavana protected.