We’re all in this together—what do we do now?
by Nagaraja Dasa
Although I was innocent, about five years ago I had to spend one day behind bars in the San Francisco city jail. Sitting on my bunk in the dingy, smoke-filled cell, I listened as the prisoners talked about freedom. That’s natural, I thought. But some of them, apparently having forgotten about life outside, talked only of improving their life within the jail.
The prisoners’ discussions reminded me of an analogy taught to me by my spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual master of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The material world, Srila Prabhupada said, is a prison for the soul. All prisoners are in one of two categories: either they are materialists, or they are transcendentalists.
Most of the souls in the material world, having forgotten their original, eternal home, are materialists, concerned only with improving their material conditions. The Sanskrit word for such a person is karmi. The karmis may be moral, religious, hard-working, responsible persons, but all for material ends. The transcendentalists, however, being more advanced in knowledge, can see beyond the temporal. They are not interested in improving themselves materially, but seek full liberation from karma and the endless cycle of birth and death.
Some people disagree with the analysis that the material world is a prison for the soul. Either they say that God has sent us here not to suffer but to enjoy, or they say that if God has indeed sent us here to suffer, then He is unjust and unmerciful.
We should understand first of all that God has more intelligence than to send us to enjoy in a miserable place. The material world means suffering, not enjoyment. We suffer innumerable miseries here, including birth, old age, disease, and death. God didn’t send us here to enjoy; we enjoy in our original home in the kingdom of God, which is full of uninterrupted happiness.
To think that God has unjustly sent us here to suffer is also a misunderstanding. God has given us the free will to love Him or to reject Him. Those who reject Him come to the material world. Here they don’t really escape Krishna’s control. Krishna controls the material world indirectly, through His material energy, which punishes the deviant soul. That punishment, however, rehabilitates the soul.
The soul’s rebellion yields neither freedom nor happiness, because the material world restricts the soul’s activities. As a prisoner must accept a certain dress, diet, and lifestyle, similarly the soul in the material world must accept a particular body and live according to the nature of that body. When the soul transmigrates from one body to another, he must respond to the dictates of each new body. In a dog’s body he’ll bark; in a bird’s body he’ll chirp. He has no freedom to act otherwise.
In the human form, however, the soul can decide whether to continue or end his imprisonment. We chose to come here; we can choose to leave. The karmis choose to remain, whereas the transcendentalists—the jnanis (speculators), the yogis (meditators), and the bhaktas (devotees)—choose liberation.
Most people are karmis, those who wish to remain imprisoned in the material world. They are bound by the law of karma, which assures that for each action they get a corresponding reaction. Their good acts bring them happiness; their sinful acts bring them suffering. Karmis generally do not understand this, and therefore they suffer. Like prisoners who have forgotten free life, the karmis repeatedly try to improve their material situation. They have unlimited desires to enjoy the material world, and even though the material energy repeatedly frustrates their plans, they foolishly continue to hope. Knowing no alternative to material life and its frustrations, they convince themselves that things aren’t so bad.
More intelligent than the karmis are the transcendentalists, who want liberation from the bondage of karma. This is real liberation—ending the cycle of birth and death. Liberation is a popular idea nowadays, and liberation movements abound. But the liberation the transcendentalists seek—full freedom from all the miseries of material existence—is far superior. Modern liberation movements strive only to achieve the freedom to exercise the basic human rights guaranteed by most democratic constitutions: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion. These freedoms are not the real goal of life, however, and will not satisfy the soul’s desire for unlimited freedom.
Even if we secure the basic human rights, we’re still stuck with old age, disease, death, and rebirth. No number of protest marches can force (or empower) any government to free its citizens from the laws of nature. We hanker for this freedom, but lacking transcendental knowledge we pursue illusory freedom within the prison. Only the transcendentalists jnanis, yogis, and bhaktas—understand the need for full liberation.
The jnanis strive for liberation through speculative philosophy; their goal is to merge their individual existence with the all-pervading spiritual existence, Brahman. By ending their individual existence, they hope to end their suffering.
The yogis strive for liberation by sense control, breath restraint, and meditation. By practicing yoga according to the rules prescribed in the Vedic literature, a yogi can perceive the Supersoul, the Lord in the heart. Absorbed in trance, the yogi is not affected by the pains and pleasures of material life.
Though the jnanis and yogis are called transcendentalists, as long as they do not engage in devotional service to Lord Krishna, they remain susceptible to the influence of the powerful material energy. To avoid the dangers of material existence, they must escape the prison of the material world and enter the spiritual world by developing their original attitude of service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
True, the processes of jnana and yoga derive from a preliminary understanding of the eternal soul. But they fall short of the goal of complete liberation. What the jnanis and yogis don’t know is that the soul is innately active. Full liberation, therefore, doesn’t mean just ending material activities, but entering spiritual activities.
Granted, the jnanis and yogis are more intelligent than the karmis. At least they have understood that the material world is a place of suffering and that they should try to get out. But they’re going about it the wrong way. Like prisoners who escape from jail but are eventually caught, the jnanis and yogis must eventually return to the material world. To leave the prison, a prisoner must have the sanction of the state. Similarly, to leave this material world, the soul must have the sanction of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
In the Bhagavad-gita (18.55), Lord Krishna says:
bhaktya mam abhijanati
yavan yash casmi tattvatah
tato mam tattvato jnatva
“One can understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead as He is only by devotional service. And when one is in full consciousness of the Supreme Lord by such devotion, he can enter into the kingdom of God.” By entering into the kingdom of God we become free.
Krishna will let us return to the kingdom of God when we have some activity to perform. And the only activity there is devotional service to Krishna. As a prisoner must prove that he has rehabilitated himself and can contribute to society, we must prove to Krishna that we are no longer envious of Him and want to serve Him with love and devotion in His transcendental abode.
The bhaktas (devotees) demonstrate their love for Krishna by engaging in His devotional service; thus they are already free from material actions and reactions. The devotees have no material desires and live in the material world only to benefit others. Like prison counselors, they may be within the prison, but in no way are they imprisoned. By their consciousness and their activities they are already liberated.
The bhaktas, therefore, are not as motivated to get out of the material world as they are to serve Krishna. Freedom means to live as one desires. And to live as they desire, the devotees do not need to leave the material world. They desire only to serve Krishna, which they can do in the material world. The devotees even refuse to accept any kind of liberation that might interfere with their service to Krishna. The pleasure of serving Krishna is a great ocean of bliss, and the pleasure of liberation is only a drop of that ocean. The devotees consider the liberation of merging into Brahman to be the same as going to hell. Brahman is spiritual existence, but without the spiritual activity of devotional service to Krishna. And any place devoid of spiritual activity is hell for a devotee.
The ideal place for spiritual activity is Goloka Vrindavana, Krishna’s eternal abode in the spiritual world. Even though the devotee is satisfied to serve Krishna in the material world, he naturally desires to be with Krishna and Krishna’s loving associates in Goloka Vrindavana. Krishna, being especially pleased with His devotee who faithfully serves Him in the material world, brings the sincere devotee back to Him at the end of the devotee’s life. And He promises in the Bhagavad-gita,“After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection.”