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On Labeling--Conclusion: Remembering the Soul and God within Life's Diversity


I find it useful to think of labels as soft or hard, liquid or frozen, flexible or ridged—and some categories as in-betweens as well. So I am labeling labels (!), yet this is a helpful process, so we don’t become used, or limited by them. This is a means of stepping back from life to evaluate the position we take on things, or types and groups of people. Being on autopilot may be easier, but can also be dangerous. Devotees of Krishna are meant to be thoughtful, not reactive persons, who endeavor to see with a spiritual eye gained from the scriptures, association of advanced, broadminded sages, and their own inner experience.

Let us take a few minutes to think about how we label people and the world, to our benefit or detriment. Is a person merely a liberal or conservative, man or women, gay or straight, American or Indian—or American Indian or American East Indian—black, white, red, yellow, blue, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, this or that sect, or an ex-convict? We can focus on the differences or the similarities. While we all naturally gravitate toward intelligent persons who think like us (smile), or who have physical/mental similarities, our real unity is on the basis of the soul. Otherwise, our unity will be short lived.

One of the most important questions I have been leading up to is this: How is our heart closed to some people by the label we give them? One of the challenges for spiritual practitioners, or for those of us who are Gaudiya Vaishnavas, is to remember that beyond all labels or bodily distinctions, every person is a child of God, worthy of respect as a soul. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely said, “You may not like everyone, but you need to love everyone.” Though we can’t embrace a tiger, we can endeavor to remember its divinity. Part of Krishna consciousness is becoming conscious aided by the Vedic scriptures, the teachings of saints, and our spiritual intelligence that informs our “common sense.”

Although a realized person is beyond material differentiation, and sees with equanimity, we as beginners, need to make distinctions to help us gain strength in our spiritual life. We aspired to become second class devotees, where we adore the Supreme Lord, makes friends with his devotees, minster to the innocent, and avoid the hostile, antagonists who envy the Lord. Thus, we must be thoughtful about our labels, seeing their limitations, even as they are useful. The philosophy of Shri Chaitanya, of oneness and difference, is always useful. Such a view sees the world and ourselves, as one with, yet distinct from Krishna. We are one with others as physical beings and souls, but also distinct. Unity in diversity. When people’s behavior or association is (in our estimation) unbecoming, we can still remember their divinity, and that our material vision of them is limited, and not the whole picture.

Labels (a word or phrase used to describe a person or group) and designations (a name, label, or description given to something or somebody) are synonymous, although the latter is more familiar in devotee lingo. Personally, I think labeling is an easier way to think about designations, since nothing naturally has a label on it, but we have to give it one. There may be subtle distinctions in the words, but both are really subjective perceptions. I bring it up because it is important to go deeper into the way we use words, trying to understand what is being said.

In any case, as devotees, we are encouraged to give up our bodily designations, or at least use them in the service of Krishna We must understand material designations or labels as foreign to the soul, who is transcendental. A verse chanted every day by those engaging in Deity worship was given by Shrila Rupa Goswami in his Padyavali, and recited by Lord Chaitanya: “I am not a brahmana [saintly teacher], I am not a kshatriya [warrior/leader], I am not a vaishya [farmer/business person] or a shudra [laboror/artisian]. Nor am I a brahmachari [celibate student], a householder [married person], a vanaprastha [retired person] or a sannyasi [renounced monk]. I identify Myself only as the servant of the servant of the servant of the lotus feet of Lord Sri Krsna, the maintainer of the gopis. He is like an ocean of nectar, and He is the cause of universal transcendental bliss. He is always existing with brilliance.” [given in Chaitanya Charitamrita Madhya-lila 13.80]

We also have the famous verse in the Bhagavad Gita [5.18] about the spiritual vision of an advanced devotee: “The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].” By studying this knowledge and trying to apply it, as well as by having regular daily spiritual practice, we are praying to live in this world with wisdom and equanimity to all beings, seeing them as eternal souls. These are my thoughts about our tendency to label.