“The Vedic activities are so designed that the conditioned soul who has come to enjoy the material world may do so under direction so that at the end he becomes detached from such material enjoyment and is eligible to enter into the transcendental position.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.4.20 Purport)
“What should I do with my life? What is the proper direction? How do I avoid being labeled ‘lost’ by others? If I don’t follow the traditional path, surely they will look at me funny. They will think that something is wrong with me. What is the purpose to going through the typical cycle of life? I have seen others follow it, and I’m not sure it is suited for me.”
Young children in school get asked what they want to be when they grow up. Through the advent of the industrial revolution, the possibilities are endless. A child doesn’t have to necessarily follow the occupation of their parents. If a business has been in the family for generations, it is not guaranteed that future generations will keep it alive. For starters, businesses have stiff competition. If you’re a fruit vendor in a farm community, that is a relatively safe way to earn an income. On the other hand, if you’re selling a piece of technology, the progress in the technology itself can one day put you out of business.
What the elders are really asking is, “Which passion do you want to follow when you are old enough to act independently?” Increasing the granularity, the question is how to enjoy the senses, how to find material happiness, when the child is no longer dependent on others.
The Vedas have an interesting take. They say that man is meant to gradually become detached. Work is not shunned. Rather, work should be engaged in with detachment, with a sense of duty more than anything else. In the Bhagavad-gita, the perfect summary of Vedic teachings, this issue comes up.
karmaṇaiva hi saṁsiddhim
sampaśyan kartum arhasi
“Even kings like Janaka and others attained the perfectional stage by performance of prescribed duties. Therefore, just for the sake of educating the people in general, you should perform your work.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.20)
The speaker, Shri Krishna, mentions the famous King Janaka of Videha. He was a yogi in spirit. He was not attached to any type of sense gratification. Today, such a person might be pitied for that. It would be like losing your sense of taste when arriving at a buffet restaurant. It would be like going through childhood without any interest in toys.
Yet Janaka was much happier than any person can imagine. That enjoyment is known as brahmananda. This compound Sanskrit word consists of the terms Brahman and ananda. Brahman is the undifferentiated spiritual energy, the sum collection of all particles of spirit. It is a realization, a way of looking at things, more so than a physical object.
Ananda is bliss, and so brahmananda is the enjoyment that occurs through realizing the spiritual oneness of all beings. A spiritual realization automatically means understanding the material energy and its proper place. Janaka was not attached to his work since he understood that spirit is more important. He knew that sense gratification was not the proper path in life.
Still, he did not shun his duties. Many important responsibilities he did have. The protection of the entire kingdom rested on his shoulders. On the excuse of being above a petty occupation, he easily could have renounced everything. He could have fled for the forest and not had to deal with distractions.
The recipient of Krishna’s words contemplated this very option. He was responsible for protecting his family, the Pandavas. It was pressure time, where a great war was about to start. Feeling a little weak of heart, Arjuna thought that maybe war wasn’t worth it, that working in this situation was not necessary.
Krishna set him straight by giving the real meaning of karma. Though the Sanskrit word can mean different things based on the context, the real definition is prescribed work. Basically, work in such a way that you’ll remain detached. Stay above the mode of passion while going through life.
This is easier than it sounds, and so there is guidance from higher authorities. Shri Krishna is the highest authority, since He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He is the source of Brahman, which is like the effulgence emanating from His gigantic transcendental body. He is Bhagavan, which is a higher realization than Brahman.
Just like with Janaka, a person who follows prescribed activities can still enjoy life. They don’t have to suffer from restricted behavior. In the present day, the activity most recommended for everyone is the chanting of the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The magic of chanting this mantra is that it leads to both attachment and detachment. Detachment from material sense gratification gradually develops. Since chanting is a kind of action, it can be thought of as work. It is the most positive work, one that leads to attachment to the Supreme Lord. That attachment brings all good things, especially at the end of life, while quitting the body.
From holy names coming attachment,
And bringing from material life detachment.
With the positive form stay,
And keep illusion far away.
Work at all times you must do,
Examples of Arjuna and Janaka too.
Better to work in meaningful way,
So that in proper consciousness to stay.