“For one who explains the supreme secret to the devotees, devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.68)
Question: “Why is it so important to have association with devotees, people who have dedicated their lives to serving the Supreme Personality of Godhead? Why is it important to hear from them?”
When we emerged from the womb, we were not talking right away. We could not verbalize our feelings to the adults, most of whom made funny faces and strange noises as they looked at us with love. We couldn’t speak out what we wanted to eat, when we wanted to sleep, or where we wanted to go. Communication had to be learned, as did the process of reasoning and making rational decisions. To learn about the Absolute Truth, that which goes beyond this temporary life amidst temporary objects and fleeting attachments, has the same requirement. It must be learned. The issue is where to go and whom to approach. The Vedas recommend that we approach a saintly person, who is generally found in a holy place of pilgrimage. If we consider the history of knowledge transfer, the logic behind this recommendation becomes quite clear.
Let’s say you’re in school today and you get an assignment to write about something like the history of computers. Where will you go? Based on the advancements in technology, you might not even have to leave the classroom. Just take out your smartphone that your parents purchased for you for emergency contact purposes, and pull up the internet browser. Then provide the words “history of computers” into the search engine. Then you get a series of hits. You could spend days and days studying the information this way.
No less than twenty years ago the process was different. The internet was not readily available. There weren’t so many computers around, and even if you happened to own one, you didn’t have anywhere to navigate to in order to get information to complete assignments for school. Your best bet was the library. Open to the public, you could go there and flip through the card catalog to find the books that matched your subject of interest. You could read any of those books while in the building. As that isn’t always practical, you could take the books home with you in what was called a “check out.” The library people knew where you lived, so if you didn’t return the book in time, you were charged a fine. As the length of the violation increased, so did the fine.
Now go back even further in time, say two hundred years or so. A young printer in the city of Philadelphia had formed a club with his friends. The goal of the club was to seek knowledge, with a strong stipulation being that no prejudice be given to religion or religious doctrine. Blind faith was not the order, as that could be found at the local churches, of which there were enough for each of the major denominations. The members of this club would meet every week and periodically submit essays for argument based on the books they had read.
The person who started this club, which was called the Junto, realized that it was a little cumbersome to have each person own their own copies of the books on the reading list. This was because books weren’t so prevalent in those times. There wasn’t a big-box retailer who carried every title known to man and could deliver it with free two-day shipping. Bookstores were scant, and so just acquiring the books on the list was difficult.
The leader and founder of the club came up with a scheme: book sharing. The members would share books. In order for this to work, there had to be a place to house the books, and there had to be plenty of books. Hence came the idea of a subscription library. People of the community would contribute to the project, and the books would be housed in a specific location. The members could then “check out” the books, and would be charged a fine of double the price of the book if they failed to return it. Hence the path was cleared for the modern day system of public lending libraries.
Now go back before this time, a few hundred years again. If you were interested in the real truth, such as the origin of everything, where would you go? Say you were interested in understanding the meaning of life. You wanted to know why we take birth and why we die. You were particularly interested in the highest philosophy, something that goes beyond just worship of an abstract figure insisted on out of fear of eternal damnation in a very hot place.
There was nowhere to turn but the saints of the Vedic tradition. They carried this information with them. The books of the highest knowledge, such as the Bhagavad-gita, Shrimad Bhagavatam, and Ramayana remained in temples devoted to the Lord. The knowledge was encoded in the Sanskrit language, so even if someone were to get their hands on these books, they would have a difficult time understanding them. It was the saints who really knew the information. It was they who could describe it to others.
And so we see why association with saintly people is so important. The Absolute Truth is above any art. Community projects, social improvement, and promotion of the general welfare are arts, for conditions in society change all the time. What works in one area of the world may not in another. There is the time factor to consider as well. Computer programming is an important field today, but one hundred years ago it had no relevance whatsoever.
Knowledge of the Absolute Truth is always important. Therefore the association of the saints who know the Absolute Truth has a value that cannot be measured. With the evolution of knowledge transfer, that same valuable information is now passed on in other forms, but the effect is the same. The association is still there, and it is what counts most. His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada put so much emphasis on the printing and distribution of his books for this very reason. That which was previously hidden in remote areas and thus available to only a fortunate few, now could be disseminated to the societies at large, to multiple nations and in multiple languages.
If you were a truth seeker living in the eighteenth century or before and residing far away from the saints of the Vedic tradition, you really had no chance for finding true knowledge. The best you could do was speculate and hope to find derivatives of the summit of knowledge known as Vedanta in other works that you read. Now today the world is very fortunate, for the number of books glorifying the Supreme Lord and His personal form has increased. There is also an army of selfless servants of the acharyas, leaders in the spiritual movement of divine love, who try to distribute transcendental knowledge to as many people as possible. Thus the association comes even if we’re not purposefully seeking it out, making even the people of Kali, who are generally unfortunate and short-lived, very blessed indeed.
On internet for class assignment given,
In past to library by mom would be driven.
And then go back centuries before,
To find real knowledge a difficult chore.
Saints have provided an easier way,
To know Absolute Truth now and today.
Continuously working, intellect’s hunger to feed,
Thus even Kali’s population becoming fortunate indeed.