“One who is Krishna conscious is a perfect yogi; he is aware of everyone’s happiness and distress by dint of his own personal experience. The cause of the distress of a living entity is forgetfulness of his relationship with God. And the cause of happiness is knowing Krishna to be the supreme enjoyer of all the activities of the human being.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 6.32 Purport)
It’s registration day. The new semester is about to start, and enrollment for classes is open. There is a limit on students in each class, so you have to sign up early for the ones you want. But which ones should you take? It’s early in your college career, so you haven’t yet declared a major. This leaves every option on the table. There are classes in biology, chemistry, and physics. Those would be difficult. You wouldn’t have enough time left to socialize. Then there are classes in pop music, tennis and racquetball, and health. Those seem like they would be easier. Which ones should you pick?
If a student not particularly known for their academic achievements suddenly gets good grades, there is the common playful question of, “What, did you take basket-weaving?” The idea is that the previously poor student probably wouldn’t choose more difficult classes to take. On the other side, the smart kids like to challenge themselves. If the opening year chemistry class has the option of being spread out over two semesters, the students with a challenging spirit will pick the more difficult option of one semester.
It would make sense that the brightest minds would tackle the biggest problems in society. How do we make a device that is small enough to fit in the pocket, that can send and receive phone calls, surf the internet, provide GPS navigation, send and receive emails, and also take pictures? A few decades ago such a device seemed impossible. Due to the efforts of the world’s smartest people, today it is a reality.
Half a century ago the smartest minds put human beings into outer space. They created smaller, more efficient automobiles. Over the years they invented high definition televisions, personal computers, and compact discs. But is this the best use of the intelligent brain? After all, the animal species does not have this advantage. They operate off basic instincts: eating, sleeping, mating and defending.
According to Vedic philosophy, to study only matter is not a wise decision. The reason being that matter cannot really do anything for the individual. A person in the past dropped a letter in the mail to get their message across. Today they hit the send button on their smartphone. But what is the real difference? There is progress in terms of speed of communication, but has anything about the experience through life changed? Has there been a halt to old age? Is disease completely stamped out? More importantly, is death a thing of the past?
The truly smart person tackles the most difficult subject matter: life and death. Why am I here? Why did I take birth? After being born, why do I have to eventually die? Why can’t I stay here forever? If the answer to these questions is “I don’t know,” then the person answering isn’t that smart. If they say that the subject matter is too difficult to handle, then their advanced intelligence has no meaning.
The Bhagavad-gita does not operate under such limitations. The speaker immediately addresses the most important issue. He says that the soul never takes birth. It never dies, either. Birth and death are merely illusions created by the material nature. They occur in fact, but only temporarily. To put great emphasis on them is not very wise. It would be like worrying about changing out of my work clothes at the end of the night. It would be like celebrating the next morning when changing out of pajamas and into the clothes for the day.
vāsāṁsi jīrṇāni yathā vihāya
navāni gṛhṇāti naro ‘parāṇi
tathā śarīrāṇi vihāya jīrṇāny
anyāni saṁyāti navāni dehī
“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.22)
Krishna explains that there is never death for the soul. But why is there birth in the material world? Again, the answer is readily forthcoming. Everyone is born into delusion, suffering from the dualities of attachment and aversion. Like a swinging pendulum, at one moment the mind is set on attachment to something. Soon thereafter the same object is a cause for disdain. One day I like pizza and the next I never want to eat it again. One day I say I love someone and the next I am divorcing them, happily so. One day I have this body and the next I am forced to give it up.
The person who loves God and is conscious of Him at the time of death no longer has to take birth. This fact subtly reveals the cause for the present birth. During the last quitting of the body, i.e. the previous death, there was not pure consciousness of God. Obviously these truths must be accepted on faith at first, just as we listen to the teacher sincerely in the classroom. Yet we needn’t rely on blind faith alone. These truths make sense. If we want to enjoy in a temporary world, we get to for as long as we want. Other people are enjoying too, which means conflict. Conflict effects change as part of the great subduing enemy known as time.
prahlādaś cāsmi daityānāṁ
kālaḥ kalayatām aham
mṛgāṇāṁ ca mṛgendro ‘haṁ
vainateyaś ca pakṣiṇām
“Among the Daitya demons I am the devoted Prahlada; among subduers I am time; among the beasts I am the lion, and among birds I am Garuda, the feathered carrier of Vishnu.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 10.30)
The human birth is the most auspicious. It gives a chance for every person, even the academically challenged, to question the reason for their existence and then do something to put a stop to repeated birth and death. The key is to ask the questions and then go to the right place for the answers. “I don’t know” is not an acceptable response, no matter who offers it. The spiritual science that is Vedic philosophy is the proper source, and the original teacher Shri Krishna has kindly summarized that science in the Bhagavad-gita, the introductory textbook for the brightest students of life looking to tackle the most difficult subject matter.
Despite creating conveniences a host,
Not best use of intelligence the most.
For only in the material to stay,
Not challenging, the easy way.
Better if on purpose of life to ask,
Getting real answers, understanding’s task.
Birth determined by at time of body’s quitting,
Bhagavad-gita for highest mind befitting.