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Culture

The Quest for Certainty


Ignoring a most important avenue of knowledge, Western philosophers have left us with a hazy conception of the Absolute Truth.

A frequent criticism of the Krishna consciousness philosophical tradition is that it places too much emphasis on authority. This is not surprising, seeing as how philosophy in the modern world is based on a revolt against authority. And yet we gain a considerable amount of our worldly knowledge from authorities—the media, schools, libraries, doctors, lawyers, and other experts. Devotees of Krishna consider this inconsistency between philosophical ideal and practical experience absurd. If authority is a valued source of our worldly knowledge, then how much more essential it must be in matters of a supra-sensory nature. From the Vedas we learn that without authority there is no real possibility of our penetrating the maze of relative truths in this world and reaching the Absolute Truth in the transcendental world. And it is precisely this Absolute Truth that we desire so much in our quest for certainty.

Our quest for certainty is part of the age-old effort to transcend belief. As the seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal observed, we are not satisfied arbitrarily accepting any system of dogma to live by. We want to justify to ourselves and to others why we adhere to this or that particular set of values. We crave certainty. We want Truth—the kind of Truth that Pascal described as “invincible to all skepticism.”

Yet ironically, despite our yearning for Absolute Truth, most of us limit ourselves to two sources of knowledge that for centuries philosophers and scientists have known yield results that are far from “invincible to all skepticism.” These sources are sense perception and inferential logic. Both rely on our sense organs, which are defective and unreliable. All of us have had the experience of being deceived by our senses. Perhaps we saw a mirage, or a stick that appeared bent because it was half immersed in water. There are many similar examples. And the process of inference, because it relies on our faulty sense perceptions, is also unreliable as a source of certain knowledge.

In support of the above conclusions, the Vedas list four characteristic defects that vitiate the reliability of all knowledge gained by perception and inference. First, we all make mistakes—“To err is human.” Second, we are all subject to illusion. Third, everyone has limited senses. Finally, everyone has the propensity to cheat. By their very nature, therefore, perception and inference fail to provide us access to the Absolute Truth. If we rely only on them, our quest for certainty is at a formidable impasse.

Some philosophers see this impasse, and being unaware of any alternative to sense perception and inference, they conclude that indubitable knowledge is impossible. These skeptics argue that even if there is a metaphysical truth underlying physical reality—an ultimate cause of existence—it is unknowable in any factual or verifiable sense because we have no access to it here in the world of phenomena. Therefore all metaphysical pursuits are futile. At best we can only conceptualize the Absolute in terms of our human experiences. But the Absolute may be entirely different from our human notions, and since we can never verify our speculations one way or the other, it is far more pragmatic to work cooperatively for the realization of humanistic ideals.

A good many people are taken in by this argument, but it has a serious flaw. The skeptics’ declaration that we can never acquire knowledge is an example of the very thing they attempt to deny: an assertion of certain knowledge. In other words, it would take perfect knowledge to know there is no perfect knowledge. This is patently absurd, and thus extreme skepticism refutes itself. We can conclude only that some sort of indubitable knowledge is possible. Our task, then, is to investigate further for a source of knowledge more reliable than perception or inference.

To date in the Western world, a plausible alternative to these has not been devised. The Vedic literature, however, recommends a third source of knowledge: shabda-brahma, hearing from transcendental authority. The Vedas consider shabda-brahma more reliable than perception or inference because it conveys knowledge free of all defects. Please note, however, that the Vedas do not dispense entirely with reason and experience. What they question is the validity of these methods in matters that do not fall within the range of reason and experience.

Some of the premises of the Vedas theory of knowledge are as follows: The Absolute Truth is that from which all else emanates; the Absolute Truth is inconceivable; that which is inconceivable can’t be understood by any amount of mental speculation; the Absolute Truth can be understood only if it chooses to reveal itself. Now, keeping in mind that absolute means unlimited, unconditional, complete, perfect, unadulterated, and so on, let us carefully try to understand how one can realize the suprasensory Absolute Truth by the process of shabda-brahma.

The Vedas explain that because the Absolute Truth is the source of everything, all qualities, attributes, and varieties found in this world must innately exist in it. Otherwise, it could not be defined as complete, unlimited, and so forth. If everything originates from and inheres in the Absolute Truth, then personhood—or personality—must also be among its innumerable features. And since the Absolute Truth is transcendental, its personal feature must be a transcendental person.

Of course, a suprasensory Absolute Person is completely inconceivable in terms of our present mundane experience. But the consequence of denying the possibility of His existence is extremely grave. We are obliged to allow, at least theoretically, that a transcendental Absolute Person can exist—just to fulfill the literal meaning of the term “absolute.” The moment we deny personhood to the Absolute Truth, we immediately try to impose limitations on the Unlimited. We try to make the Inconceivable conceivable, the Complete incomplete.

A great many thinkers have difficulty coping with the Vedas’ assertion that the Absolute Truth is a person. Though they readily agree that absolute means “unlimited,” “complete,” and so on, they somehow retain a limited conception of the Absolute. They speculate that the Absolute must be some sort of all- pervading, infinite, undifferentiated, impersonal, metaphysical substance—a “Oneness”devoid of any personal characteristics.

These impersonalists, as they are called, generally derive their conception of the Absolute in response to the variegated nature of this world. Metaphysical reality, they reason, must be the complete opposite of physical reality. Therefore it must be formless, homogeneous, subjective, and impersonal.

The Vedas,however, explain that the complete Absolute includes both the personal and the impersonal aspects. By way of analogy, consider the sun. The sun is like the personal feature of the Absolute, the sunlight like the impersonal feature. Both exist simultaneously as the energetic source and the energy, but one is localized, the other expansive and all-pervasive. Similarly, the Absolute Person exists simultaneously with the impersonal Absolute. This is necessarily true, although paradoxical, because the source of all emanations must simultaneously contain and reconcile all contradictory notions.

The Vedas give numerous details about the name, form, qualities, pastimes, and entourage of the Absolute Person. His name, we are told, is Krishna, the All-Attractive One. His transcendental body is made of eternality, knowledge, and bliss. No one is equal to Krishna or greater than Him. He is the prime cause of all causes. His transcendental abode in the spiritual realm is far, far beyond the material realm. There Krishna always revels in transcendental loving exchanges with His pure devotees. These relationships are untainted by mundane feelings such as envy, hate, anger, fear, illusion, and lust.

From time to time, Krishna manifests Himself within the physical world and enacts many wonderful, incomparable pastimes. He also delivers to human society knowledge of the Absolute Truth unavailable from any other source. Krishna does not have a material body. Thus He is never afflicted by any of the four human defects. He is absolute, and His words are absolute. For this reason, His devotees accept the scriptures spoken by Krishna, such as Bhagavad-gita, as authoritative and perfect—absolute knowledge. Hence the basis of scriptural authority for Krishna conscious persons is the Absolute Truth Himself.

Since I used the Vedas as the reference to establish the personhood of the Absolute Truth and the authority of Bhagavad-gita, one may naturally wonder about the basis of the authority of the Vedas. The Vedas themselves explain that they emanated from the Absolute Truth. They are not man-made. And in the Bhagavad- gita (15.15) Krishna says, “By all the Vedas, I am to be known. Indeed, I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.”

Still, some philosophers try to discredit the Vedas’ claim that they rest on the authority of the Absolute Truth. These thinkers sometimes cite the fallacy of circulus in probando, circular reasoning, to refute the Vedas’ claim. They object to the fact that the Vedas refer to themselves to give evidence for their authority. The argument looks something like this:

A: Krishna is the Absolute Truth.
B: How do you know this is true?
A: It is stated in the Vedas and the Bhagavad-gita.
B: How do you know they are reliable?
A: Because Krishna spoke them.

In logic this type of reasoning is not admissible evidence. But when the discussion is about evidence for the Absolute Truth, this argument is valid. Logical reasoning dictates that there can be no source of verification for the Absolute Truth but the Absolute Truth Himself. Furthermore, these philosophers overlook that the Vedas’ claim—albeit an astounding one—is completely consistent with the premise of its theory of knowledge: that knowledge of the suprasensory Absolute can come only from the Absolute Himself. In this particular instance, therefore, the fallacy of circulus in probando does not apply.

There is another important reason why the fallacy of circular reasoning is not applicable in this case. The Vedic literature gives a scientific methodology whereby one can test its theory of knowledge. All sages and saintly persons who followed the Vedas’ recommendations to the point of mature transcendental realization—such as Narada Muni, Madhva, Ramanuja, Sri Caitanya, and His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada—all confirm that the Vedas emanated from the Absolute Truth, and that the Absolute Truth is Krishna.

The knowledge Krishna reveals about Himself in the Vedas is as good as His autobiography. Krishna is the superexcellent authority and the last word on Himself, just as Shakespeare is the last word and authority on himself. Devotees find no contradiction or fallacious reasoning in the theory that transcendental knowledge must come from transcendental authority. Rather, they find it sublime. It is so sublime that even if you withdraw the support of the Vedas, it still stands up to the critical examination of reason.

The final point concerning the theory of shabda- brahma is understanding the authority of the guru, the spiritual master. Lord Krishna, besides being the basis of authority for the scriptures, is also the authority for the disciplic succession of gurus. He explains this in the Bhagavad-gita. He is the original guru, having enlightened Lord Brahma with transcendental knowledge. Lord Brahma enlightened Narada Muni, whose disciple was Vyasadeva, and so on down to the present day.

Transcendental, indubitable knowledge is first given by Lord Krishna and then transmitted as it is without any adulteration through the disciplic chain. Each guru repeats the message in just the way he heard it from his predecessor guru.

Hearing from the lips of a bona fide spiritual master is as good as hearing from Krishna directly. The guru’s teachings and behavior must be in consonance with the Vedic version. The moment a “guru” deviates from this principle, the disciple is no longer obligated to follow him.

In the Vedas, Krishna repeatedly exhorts us to seek out a bona fide guru, surrender to him, and please him by submissive inquiry and service. In this way the disciple gradually transcends all material limitations of his senses, mind, and intellect. Then by spiritual cognition, called vaidusha-pratyaksha, he can see Krishna face to face. But he can be successful in this endeavor only if he humbles himself before the authority of scripture and the authorized spiritual master.

Actually, accepting authority is the universal principle in learning virtually any subject. Granted, authority has been corrupted and abused in the past—and it certainly will be in the future—but the validity of the principle still stands. Hundreds of years of philosophical speculation have not produced a more feasible method for understanding the Absolute Truth than shabda-brahma.

Those who think the process of Krishna consciousness places too much emphasis on authority would benefit immensely by studying the Vedas’ theory of knowledge. They would be pleased to find it “invincible to all skepticism,” although on a personal level they may balk at accepting the discipline. That raises a question of their integrity. As far as the quest for certainty is concerned, there is simply no other way to get around the impasse created by perception and inference. Sabda-brahma has been tried and proven true. It does deliver the indubitable Absolute Truth.

When Knowledge Is Nescience

sa paryagach chukram akayam avranam
asnaviram shuddham apapa-viddham
kavir manishi paribhuh svayambhur
yathatathyato ’rthan vyadadhach chashvatibhyah samabhyah

andham tamah pravishanti
ye ’vidyam upasate
tato bhuya iva te tamo
ya u vidyayam ratah

“Such a person must factually know the greatest of all, the Personality of Godhead, who is unembodied, omniscient, beyond reproach, without veins, pure, and uncontaminated, the self-sufficient philosopher who has been fulfilling everyone’s desire since time immemorial.

“Those who engage in the culture of nescient activities shall enter into the darkest region of ignorance. Worse still are those engaged in the culture of so-called knowledge.”—Sri Ishopanishad, Mantras 8–9

“Such a person must factually know the greatest of all…who is unembodied, omniscient…” That is the distinction between God and us. We are embodied. This body is different from me. Therefore when I leave this body, it becomes dust. “Dust thou art, dust thou shall be.” That refers to the body. I am not dust. I am spirit soul.

Krishna is not embodied. He has no difference between His body and His soul. He does not change His body, because He doesn’t have a material body. And because He does not change His body, He remembers everything. We change our body; therefore we do not remember what happened in our last birth.

Even in sleep we forget our body and the environment we are in. While sleeping and dreaming, you are in a dreamland. You don’t remember even that you have this body. Every night we experience this. I’m not the body. The body becomes tired. It sleeps or is inactive. But—as I am—I work, I dream, I go somewhere, I fly, or I create another kingdom, another body, another environment. This we experience every night. It is not difficult to understand.

Similarly, in every life, we create a different environment. In this life I may think I am Indian. You may think you are American. Or next life, a different position. Next life I may not be American, or I may not be Indian. And if I become American, I may not be a man. I may be a cow or a bull. Then I will be sent to the slaughterhouse. You see?

This is going on. This is the problem. Always changing bodies. It is a serious situation. We should take this life very seriously. “I’m changing my body life after life. I have no fixed position. I do not know where I will be put within the 8,400,000 species of life. So I must make a solution.”

Krishna gives that solution: yad gatva na nivartante tad dhama paramam mama. “If anyone, some way or other, by developing Krishna consciousness comes to Me, he doesn’t have to return and accept a material body.” [Bhagavad-gita 15.6] He gets the same kind of body as Krishna, sac-cid-ananda-vigrahah: a spiritual body of eternity, knowledge, and bliss.

We should very seriously execute Krishna consciousness, without any deviation. We should not be neglectful, thinking that this is a fashion or something imposed. No. This is the most important function. Human life is meant simply for developing Krishna consciousness. We have no other business. But unfortunately we have created so many engagements that we forget Krishna consciousness. That is called maya. We are forgetting our real business.

The rascal, blind leaders are leading people to hell. The leaders are tied up by the stringent rules and regulations of the material nature, but they have become leaders. And the people are being misled. That is called maya.

Some way or other you have come in contact with Krishna. So catch Him very tightly. If you catch Krishna’s lotus feet very tightly, then maya will not be able to do any harm.

Two Educations

There are two kinds of education: material education and spiritual education, brahma-vidya and jada-vidya. Jada-vidya means material education. Jada means “that which cannot move,” or matter. Spirit can move. Our body is a combination of spirit and matter. As long as the spirit is there, the body moves, just as a man’s coat and pants move as long as the man is wearing them. It appears that the coat and pants are moving, but actually the living entity is moving, and the covering, the dress, appears to be moving. Similarly, this body is moving because the spirit soul is moving.

If a car is moving, that means the driver is moving it. Foolish people may think that the car is moving on its own. But in spite of all the mechanical arrangements, it cannot move.

Because of the wrong kind of education, people think that material nature is working independently, moving and manifesting so many wonderful things. The waves are moving, but the waves are not moving independently. The air is moving them. But the air is also not moving independently. In this way, if you go back, back, back, you’ll find that Krishna is the cause of all causes. That is philosophy: to search out the ultimate cause.

Here it is said, andham tamah pravishanti ye avidyam upasate. Those captivated by the external movements are worshiping avidya, nescience. That will not help them. There are big, big institutions for studying technology—how a motorcar can move, how an airplane can move. They are manufacturing so much machinery. But there is no educational institution to study how the mover, the spirit soul, is moving. That lack of education is called avidya, nescience. The actual mover is not being studied, but the external movement is being studied.

When I lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I inquired, “Where is that technology to study the mover?” But they have no such arrangement. They could not answer satisfactorily. That is avidya.

Dark Desitination

Here, in the Ishopanishad, it is said, andham tamah pravishanti ye avidyam upasate. For those engaged only in the material advancement of education, the result will be that they will go to the darkest region of existence, andham tamah. It is a very dangerous position that at the present moment there is no arrangement in any state, all over the world, for spiritual education. This situation is pushing human society to the darkest region of existence.

Actually, that is happening. In your country, your rich country, you have a nice educational system, with so many universities, but what class of men are you producing? The students are becoming hippies. Why? The leaders should think about this. “What are we producing in spite of so many educational institutions?”

The leaders are worshiping avidya, nescience. That is not knowledge. Bhaktivinoda Thakura has sung very nicely: jada-vidya jato, mayara vaibhava. Jada-vidya means material education. Bhaktivinoda Thakura says it is an expansion of maya. Tomara bhajane badha: The more we advance in material education, the more we will be hampered in understanding God. And at last we shall declare, “God is dead. I am God. You are God”—all such nonsense.

That idea is hinted at here: andham tamah. Andham means darkness. There are two kinds of darkness: ignorance, and the absence of sunlight or other light. Materialists are certainly being pushed into the darkness. But there is another class—so-called philosophers, mental speculators, religionists, and yogis—who are going still more into the darkness because they are defying Krishna. They pose as if culturing spiritual knowledge, but because they have no information of Krishna, or God, their advancement of education is more dangerous because they are misleading people. For example, with their so-called yoga system they are misleading people by preaching, “Meditate and you’ll understand that you are God.” By meditation, one becomes God. [Laughs.] You see?

Krishna never meditated. He never had any chance to meditate, because from the very beginning Kamsa was prepared to kill Him. Then He was transferred by His father to the house of Nanda-Yashoda. There, when as a three-month-old baby He was sleeping, the demon Putana attacked Him. So Krishna had no chance to meditate to become God. He is God from the very beginning. That is God. God is God, and dog is dog. That is the law of identity.

“Become still, become silent, and you will become God.” This is nonsense. How I can become silent? Is there any possibility of becoming silent? No. There is no such possibility. “Become desireless.” How I can become desireless?

Purified Activities

These are all bluffs. We cannot be desireless. We cannot be silent. But our desires, our activities, have to be purified. That is real knowledge. We should desire only to serve Krishna. That is purification of desire. Not desireless—that is not possible.

How can I be desireless? How can I be silent? That is not possible. I cannot be silent for a second. So then our activities should be engaged, dovetailed, in Krishna’s service. This is real knowledge: “As a living entity, I have all these things—activities, desires, the loving propensity. Everything is there. But it is being misguided.” We do not know where to place all these things. That is avidya, nescience.

This Ishopanishad teaches us that we should be very careful. We don’t say that you shouldn’t advance in material education. You can advance, but at the same time you should become Krishna conscious. That is our propaganda. We don’t say that you shouldn’t manufacture cars or machines. But we say, “All right, you have manufactured this machine. Employ it in Krishna’s service.” That is our proposal. We don’t say stop it. We don’t say that you can’t have any sex life. But we say, “Yes, have a sex life—for Krishna. Produce Krishna conscious children. For that purpose you can have sex a hundred times.” But don’t create cats and dogs. That is our proposal.

Education is required, but if education is wrongly diverted, it is very, very dangerous. That is the purport of this verse. So-called education has no value.

Thank you very much. Hare Krishna.

Day-to-Day Spirituality

practical tips on living a spiritual life in a material world

Things come up. Life happens. How to maintain a regulated, sattvic lifestyle while juggling increasingly complicated life responsibilities in the rush of a modern industrialized world?

We’re not alone. People have been trying to practice spiritual life in the material world ever since there was a material world. It’s never as easy as we may like, but with enthusiasm, patience, determination, a sense of humor, and the mercy of the Lord, anything is possible.

Locked Up!

We’re all in this together—what do we do now?


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
vishate tad-anantaram

“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.”

Tragedy Calls… Am I Next?


The teachings of the Bhagavad-gita help us see beyond the apparent randomness of tragedy.

I had just turned eleven when our small island town was gripped with terror. Mary Kelly had disappeared three days earlier, and now her mutilated body had been found in the woods just a mile from where I lived. The intensive, frantic search was over, leaving everyone stunned with disbelief. In our town, people rarely locked doors unless they were to be away for an extended time. But from that day on, our family began sliding our front door’s shiny brass chain into its groove.

That night as I lay in bed under my covers, I recited the same prayer I’d recited since I was a small child.

“Father, thank you for the night and for the pleasant morning light, for rest and food and loving care, and all that makes the world so fair. Help us to do the things we should, to be to others kind and good. Amen.”

Then I added my usual P.S.: “Please take care of my mother, my father, my brothers, my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and all the good people in the world.”

I finished my prayer still feeling shrouded in loneliness, fear, and doubt. As my heart pounded in my chest, my eyes scanned the darkness for any movement or abnormalities. Previously, in fearful moments I’d found comfort in the thought of an almighty, omnipresent God watching over and protecting me. Today’s events had shattered that image. While I had not known Mary Kelly very well, we rode the same bus to school, walked the same halls, and ate in the same cafeteria. Why would God protect me and not her? I concluded that tragedy occurs randomly and I was as vulnerable as anyone else.

I lay awake all night, falling asleep only when a faint light of dawn broke the darkness. An hour later my father’s voice broke through my deep sleep and called me to prepare for school. I considered asking to stay home from school but quickly dismissed the idea, realizing I would be alone all day in an empty house. Dazed, I dragged myself out of bed and got ready for school.

School that day was business as usual. We wanted to forget what had happened and try to reclaim an illusion of safety and well being. But I couldn’t forget. Mary’s death raised questions and doubts that haunted me.

The Tragedy Lottery

To make sense of it all, I compared personal tragedy to winning the lottery. Both involved the luck of the draw. Since I had never won anything, I thought, perhaps that same “bad” luck would also keep me safe from harm. This convoluted thinking pacified my mind to some extent. Still, for the next several years I often lay awake at night imagining sinister footsteps in our quiet, dark suburban house. I so much wanted to regain the lost feeling that God, angels, or someone was looking after me. But for the rest of my childhood, that sense of protection never returned. Instead, I kept an uneasy truce with Lady Luck, who seemed to hold my fate in her hands.

Later, in college, I read Bhagavad-gita and learned about the law of karma, which states that whatever good or bad comes our way is the consequence of good or evil deeds we have done. Since the soul is eternal, karma can even result from deeds done in past lifetimes.

Learning of karma made me question the role of luck in life. I began to consider that my own past deeds, good and bad, had to play out and I would get what I deserved. It also occurred to me that what I was doing today would create something I’d have to live with tomorrow. This gave me a new sense of self-determination. I felt stronger. Then another shock shattered my security.

Why Chuckie?

One evening I went to visit my friend Mark at his fraternity house. He was downstairs playing cards with his friends, and I was about to join them when I was suddenly overcome with a strong desire to work on a school assignment. The paper wasn’t due for two weeks, but instead of hanging around downstairs, as I would have usually done, I returned to the small library upstairs to study.

Suddenly I was jolted by the deafening sound of a gunshot, then screams of “Oh my God! Oh my God! He’s dead!”

Panicked, I ran down the steps. A young man barred me from going any farther and routed me out of the building. His only explanation was that there was a lot of confusion and I had best get back to my dorm.

As I walked down College Avenue, sirens pierced the quiet spring evening. Police cars and an ambulance sped by towards the fraternity house. I could imagine what had taken place. Was it someone I knew? Was it Mark? Who shot the gun and why? My mind flashed back to the time Mary Kelly’s body was found in the woods just a mile from my home. This time, a fatal gunshot had occurred only a few feet away.

That night Mark called. I was relieved to hear his voice. He explained that a student, somewhat intoxicated, was fooling around with a sawed-off shotgun. Not thinking it was loaded, he pointed the gun at a boy named Chuckie and pulled the trigger. To everyone’s shock and horror, the gun—fired from two feet away—blew Chuckie’s head off.

Chuckie was a friend to both of us, and I felt overwhelmed by sadness and disbelief. Over the next few days, as I reflected on the tragedy, I remembered my readings about karma. I began to feel a strong conviction that what had transpired wasn’t just a random series of events but was being arranged by a higher authority. But why Chuckie? Why Mary? What had they done to deserve such a fate? And why not me?

The Problem of Evil

Some years passed, and I remained uncertain about the conflicting roles of luck and karma. At one point I read a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner entitled When Bad Things Happen To Good People. He postulated that, although God created the world and set it into motion, He has no control over what goes on. God is good, but because of His lack of direct involvement, He is not to blame for our blunders. Thus Rabbi Kushner reconciled God’s existence with tragic events happening to good and innocent people.

As I pursued my study of Bhagavad-gita, I came to understand that the Vedic conclusion is quite different. The Lord not only sets the creation into motion, but He personally accompanies every living entity into this material world to assist us in rectifying the consciousness that has separated us from Him.

Krishna, God, creates us to love Him. But love must be voluntary, so He also gives us the free will to reject Him if we choose. When we reject God, we enter this world of matter, where suffering prevails. Out of His love for each of us, Krishna guides us back to His service. He uses the agency of karma, the system of reward and punishment, to help us decipher right from wrong. As our desires become more in line with His desires, He personally takes charge of our lives, guiding us on our journey back to Him. Krishna assures us of this in the Bhagavad-gita (18.66). He tells Arjuna that as we give up all other engagements and serve Him exclusively, according to His desires, then He will protect us from all the reactions of our past karma.

Maybe Yes, Maybe No

Returning to Rabbi Kushner’s exploration of “bad” things happening to good people, let us consider what is bad and what is good, as illustrated by the story of a wise old Chinese farmer.

One day the farmer’s horse disappeared.
All his neighbors exclaimed, “Ah, what misfortune.”
The wise farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The following day the horse returned with three wild horses.
At this turn of events, the neighbors all said, “What good fortune!”
Again the wise farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
In the days that followed, the farmer’s son was training one of the wild horses when he fell off and broke his leg.
The neighbors came to console the farmer.
“Oh, what terrible fortune! Your son has broken his leg and can’t work.”
Again the wise farmer simply replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
Shortly thereafter war broke out and the army came to recruit the farmer’s son. Because of his condition, they rejected him.
At this the neighbors joyfully proclaimed, “Just see your good fortune! Because of your son’s broken leg, he has been spared from the war!”
Again the wise farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
And so the story goes.

This story shows how our limited vision prevents us from evaluating what is actually good or bad in any given situation. Unless we can understand past, present, and future, how can we possibly understand the ramifications of an event on someone’s life? I learned from the Bhagavad- gita that only Krishna has the total picture and only He knows what is truly in our long-term interest. Knowing this, advanced, learned devotees of the Lord are not affected by the dualities of the material world. Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita (2.15) that a person undisturbed in happiness or distress and steady in both is certainly eligible for liberation.

Srimad-Bhagavatam gives many accounts of learned devotees who underwent severe tribulations and reverses and continued to have full faith in the Lord and love for Him. One example is the great king Parikshit. An inexperienced brahmana boy cursed saintly Parikshit to die in seven days. The king accepted the curse as part of the Lord’s greater plan. As a result, he heard the Srimad- Bhagavatam for the last seven days of his life. By the time death arrived, he was fully self-realized and departed for the spiritual world.

Without knowing the Lord’s greater plan, we might have concluded that the event was a tragedy because of the loss of a saintly king. But in fact his death benefited not only the king but also countless generations of Srimad- Bhagavatam readers.

Escaping Death

The Bhagavatam teaches us to see death and suffering from a higher perspective. We learn that in our original position in the spiritual world we are fully enlightened and completely happy, and we never die. As long as we accept the material world as our home and try to be happy here, we’re cheating ourselves. But God, our all- powerful and dearmost friend, arranges everything in our lives to encourage us to return to our spiritual home. We resist, though, and continue to live in material bodies because we harbor desires to enjoy separate from the Lord. And as long as we live in material bodies, death comes.

If we grasp the full scope of our existence, we can understand the significance of each event that we struggle through. Since most of us lack such vision, we need to develop faith that Lord Krishna arranges everything for our ultimate benefit, even if at present we cannot understand how. Krishna instructs Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita (18.57) that in all activities we should just depend upon Him and work fully under His protection. He further explains that the mood of dependence on Him is itself devotional service. The more we enter into that mood, the more we will be conscious of Him and see so-called happiness and distress as equally the Lord’s mercy.

No Fear

Becoming conscious of the Lord means no more fear. The material world is called kuntha, “full of anxiety and fear” for the living entity. But the Lord’s abode is called Vaikuntha, “free from fear and anxiety.”

Vaikuntha consciousness manifests more and more as we chant the Lord’s names, following the recommendation given five hundred years ago by Krishna Himself in His incarnation as Lord Caitanya. By chanting the Lord’s name, we cleanse our heart of the impurities that prevent us from understanding the truth about the Lord and ourselves.

Through chanting I have gained faith in the Lord’s plans for me and have recovered my long-lost childhood sense of safety and protection.

Reincarnation III

A Course In Vedic Knowledge III

PART III: Lord Krishna explains reincarnation in the beginning of the Bhagavad-gita (2.13):“As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death.” Each of us once had the body of a baby, and now we have the body of an adult. But these two bodies are entirely different. They don’t look alike, and all the chemical ingredients have changed. Nonetheless, our mothers still know us as the same person.

When we are thirty or forty years older, again our body will look different. But we will remain the same person. So what is it that remains the same? It is our real self, the spirit soul. In this way we can observe reincarnation to a certain extent even in this lifetime.

When a person dies, we generally say, “He’s gone,” even if he’s lying right next to us. Why do we say he’s gone? Who has gone? And where has he gone? Because the body is still lying there, we should understand that it is the soul that has left. The person we thought we knew was never identical with his body. In fact, no one had ever seen the real person.

A beautiful actress may be adored by millions, but as soon as she is dead, no one will be attracted to her, although her body still looks the same. Obviously, her body was not the real object of attraction.

Even if you try to inject certain missing chemicals into the body, you can never make it alive again once the soul is gone. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (2.20, 22),

For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.

As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.

Now, a scientist or a hard-core materialist may ask, “But where is the evidence for the soul and reincarnation? No one has ever observed these directly.”

This challenge presumes that all scientific “facts” have been directly observed. This, of course, is not true. Millions of children are taught that life comes from matter, that it all started with the “big bang” or the “primordial soup.” Then by chance, chemicals began to organize themselves and gradually evolved into the highly sophisticated human form.

We can confidently state that no one has ever observed this process, since supposedly it took place before any human observers existed, and certainly no one lives the billions of years necessary to witness such a process. The theories that life has evolved from chemicals have never been proven. No one has ever observed matter producing life.

We can, however, observe daily how living creatures produce matter: hair, perspiration, fingernails, and so on. Therefore, reincarnation is more compatible with observable phenomena than is the theory of chemical evolution. Matter is clearly dependent on spirit. We can see the body changing while the person remains the same, and we can see life producing matter.

Misled by theories of modern science, people have no knowledge of the soul and the universal laws of reincarnation. They think that death is the end of our existence, and that therefore we should try to enjoy this life as much as possible. This kind of philosophy encourages cruelty, selfishness, crime, and irresponsibility. People don’t know that while they may get away with cheating worldly authorities, and in this way avoid reactions for their activities, they cannot escape the subtle law that every action produces a reaction.

Understanding reincarnation can inspire us to lead more responsible lives of morality, honesty, and love for our fellow human beings, because we know that we will be held responsible for our activities in our next life.

Reincarnation explains many puzzling phenomena. For example, how was Mozart able to melt people’s hearts with his piano playing when he was only five years old, whereas someone else cannot play nicely despite many years of practice? The answer is simple: Mozart had been practicing in at least one lifetime before.

This argument may not be strictly scientific, but it makes more sense than to say that our abilities come about by chance. Of course, some people refuse to accept reincarnation without empirical proof. To this we can say that reincarnation is not something that can be verified in a laboratory. Many other accepted phenomena cannot be explained that way either. Love, remorse, resentment altruism—these cannot be verified in the laboratory, but we all know they exist.

To flatly reject reincarnation is a dogmatic attitude. At least a person should admit that he simply doesn’t know whether it exists or not. After all, there is no proof that it does not exist.

If a materialist takes the chance of living a life against universal laws, against the injunctions of holy scriptures, against the advice of self-realized persons, he runs the risk of having to take birth as an animal or in some other undesirable circumstances. And even if everything is finished at death, he cannot guarantee that he will be happy by living irresponsibly, with no concern for his future life.

In the Bhagavad-gita (16.23) Lord Krishna gives this advice:

He who discards scriptural injunctions and acts according to his own whims attains neither perfection, nor happiness, nor the supreme destination.

A devotee, however, cannot lose. If reincarnation is a fact, he is assured of a better destination in the next life. And even if reincarnation were not true, the life of a devotee is still a happy life.

Besides these considerations, devotees understand that Krishna consciousness is a spiritual science that enables one to realize the truth of the philosophy. By practicing bhakti- yoga,the devotee becomes free of all doubts concerning the nature of the soul and its activities. And his realizations are confirmed by the authoritative Vedic scriptures and the testimonies of thousands of great saints and sages.

Human life is a crossroads, a chance to either elevate or degrade ourselves. After millions of births in lower species, it is the greatest misfortune to spoil the unique opportunity human life awards us: to once and for all stop the cycle of birth and death and attain our original, blissful position in the spiritual world.

On the Operator of the Universal Machine


The following conversation between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and some of his disciples took place in May 1975 during an early-morning walk in Perth, Australia.

Srila Prabhupada: The atheist says there is no God, no operator of this big universal machine. But has the atheist any experience of a machine working without an operator?

Devotee: No. But you cannot compare this whole universe to any man-made machine.

Srila Prabhupada: Why? Just the other day we saw a huge printing press in Japan. It was printing the sheets, collecting them, stacking them—so many things were being done systematically, all by machine. Similarly, by the universal machine the seasonal changes are going on, the sun is rising, the moon is rising, the water of the oceans is moving in waves. Everything is being done systematically: the sun and the moon are rising exactly on time, the seasons are coming exactly on time. Is this not how a machine works?

Devotee: [taking the role of an atheist] But this universal machine is so wonderful that it goes on without an operator.

Srila Prabhupada: You’re a rascal—dull—so you cannot understand how someone is operating this universal machine. You cannot find in your experience any machine that is working without a person. Why do you bring this idea that without an operator this big universal machine is working? This is a false idea.

Devotee: There are some automatic machines.

Srila Prabhupada: No. Behind every machine there is an operator.

Devotee: Someone must turn it on and off.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. There is no such thing as an automatic machine. That is impersonalism.

Devotee: We can see the operator of these small machines, Srila Prabhupada, but we can’t see the operator of this universal machine.

Srila Prabhupada: Have you seen the operator of the electric powerhouse? Do you think the powerhouse is working automatically?

Devotee: Well, we could see him if we wanted to. We could drive there right now.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, and you can go to Krishna and see Him, also. But first you must become qualified.

Devotee: That’s not so easy.

Srila Prabhupada: It is very easy. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita, bahavo jnana-tapasa puta mad-bhavam agatah: “By becoming purified through knowledge and penance, many have come to Me in the past.” So why are you disappointed? You can go to Krishna. Striyo vaishyas tatha shudrah: Even if you are low-born or less intelligent, you can go to Him. Krishna is open to everyone. Simply become qualified, that’s all. And what is the qualification? Krishna says, man-mana bhava mad- bhakto mad-yaji mam namaskuru: “Just always think of Me, become My devotee, worship Me, and offer your respect to Me.” These four things you must do. We have opened our temples for this purpose—so you can always think of Krishna, worship Him, offer obeisances to Him, and become His devotee. Then mam evaishyaty asamshayah: Without any doubt, you will go to Him. What is the difficulty?

Devotee: The operator of the powerhouse is running the powerhouse, but it’s not really necessary that we go see him. We can simply enjoy the electricity provided by the powerhouse.

Srila Prabhupada: That’s what you do if you’re a rascal, a fool. But if you are intelligent enough, you’ll ask, “Who is the operator? Let me see him.” That is the difference between an intelligent person and one who is dull.

I once heard a story about a little boy who was beating on a drum—dumm, dumm, dumm. He became inquisitive and thought, “Wherefrom is the sound coming? Somebody must be within the drum.” So he found a way to open the drum and look inside. This is intelligence. A dull student will think, “Oh, the sound is just coming, that’s all.” But an intelligent boy will always inquire, “What is this, father? ‘ What is this, father?”

So if one is very dull, just like the cats and dogs, he will not inquire about the operator behind this universal machine. In the human form of life this inquiry should come. Otherwise, you remain cats and dogs.

Devotee: What about the body, Srila Prabhupada? Isn’t that also a machine?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes.

Devotee: But the scientists say that this body is more complicated than any machine because it can think, feel, and will, whereas machines can’t do that.

Srila Prabhupada: The scientists cannot see that the thinking, feeling, and willing is coming from the operator of the machine, the soul. These rascals cannot understand that. Krishna says, dehino ‘smin yatha dehe: Within the bodily machine is i the operator, the soul.

Devotee: Just like the child who tried to find the cause of the sound in his drum, the scientists are trying to find the cause of the material world. Is that not intelligence?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, but they have not reached the ultimate goal.

Devotee: But they’re trying.

Srila Prabhupada: They’re trying—that is admitted. But they are concluding that there is no operator. That is their foolishness. They have to go further and further until they conclude, “Yes, there is an operator.” That is the final goal of their investigation. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita, bahunam janmanam ante jnanavan mam prapadyate: “After many, many births of sincere inquiry, if one is actually intelligent he will surrender to Me.” And then, vasudevah sarvam iti: “He’ll understand that Vasudeva [Krishna] is everything.”

But these scientists waste time. When we say, “Here is Krishna—here is the operator of the universal machine,” they’ll not accept. They would rather waste time life after life, laboring and wondering. But one day they will come to the conclusion that Krishna is the operator behind this whole universe.

Krishna—The Personal Form Of God


This mantra is from the Ishopanishad, the oldest of the famed Upanishads, which are the philosophic heart of the sacred scriptures of India. The mantra presents contradictions—by way of proving the inconceivable potencies of God. In India, as well as throughout the world, those who admit God’s existence have always disputed whether God is impersonal or personal. The Mayavada school accepts only an impersonal aspect of the Lord and rejects His personal feature. The Bhagavata school (devoted to Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and represented today by the Krishna consciousness movement) accepts the Lord as both impersonal and personal.

We should not take it for granted that just because we cannot see God with our eyes, the Lord does not have a personal existence. The Ishopanishad mantra refutes this argument by warning us that the Lord is “far away but very near as well.” The abode of the Supreme Lord is far, far beyond the material sky, and its distance cannot even be measured. But despite the Lord’s being so far away, He can at once, within less than a second, descend before us with a speed swifter than the mind or wind.

And there is no power to prevent the primeval Supreme Being from coming before us in the material world in His supreme personal form. For example, the Lord can appear in the form of Deities supposedly made of earth, stone, or wood. Although engraved from wood, stone, or other matter, these forms are not idols (as the iconoclasts contend). In our present state of imperfect material existence, we cannot see the Supreme Lord because of our imperfect senses. Yet those devotees who want to see Him by means of material vision are favored by the Lord, who appears in a so-called material form to accept His devotees’ service. One should not think that such devotees are worshiping an idol. They are factually worshiping the Lord, who has agreed to appear before them in an approachable way. Nor is the Deity form fashioned to the whims of the worshiper. (This is the actual meaning of the Biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not worship a graven image”—one is forbidden to imagine a form and worship it as God.) The Deity form is authorized by scripture and exists eternally with all His paraphernalia. This can be actually felt by a sincere devotee, but not by an atheist. For the surrendered soul the Lord is always within reach, whereas for the unsurrendered soul He is far, far away and cannot be approached.

Krishna, the Perfect Friend


The more we hear about God’s unlimited qualities, the more we’ll understand that nothing can satisfy like friendship with Him.

The desire for friendship is universal. It is based on our propensity to love someone. This propensity is thoughtfully explained by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in The Nectar of Devotion, one of the philosophical cornerstones of the Krishna consciousness movement. In his Preface, Srila Prabhupada writes,

The basic principle of the living condition is that we have a general propensity to love someone. No one can live without loving someone else. This propensity is present in every living being. Even an animal like a tiger has this loving propensity, at least in a dormant stage, and it is certainly present in the human beings. The missing point, however, is where to repose our love so that everyone can become happy? That missing point is Krishna, and The Nectar of Devotion teaches us how to stimulate our original love for Krishna and how to be situated in that position where we can enjoy our blissful life.

The Vedic literature tells us that our original friend is Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In the material world, we mistakenly try to re-create our blissful, primeval relationship with Him through various temporal relationships, all of which fail to satisfy our perpetual longing for perfect friendship. Krishna, or God, is the divine fountainhead of the loving sentiment that can be seen in all living beings. The Vedas explain that God created us out of His inexhaustible desire for loving exchanges. Thus friendship with Him is the original state of the soul.

Since we are eternally part of Krishna, there is a natural intimacy between Him and us. In the Bhagavad-gita we learn that He is residing within our hearts as the Supersoul, graciously accompanying us as we wander throughout the universe, life after life, in search of lasting happiness. Unlike us, God possesses a spiritual vision that is never dimmed by material contact, and thus He is perfectly aware of our folly. As our true friend, He exhibits His kindness upon us by allowing us to learn through our own experience the futility of our efforts, and He lovingly deflects our attention back to Himself, the abode of all happiness.

Because Lord Krishna is supremely pure, His friendship is never contaminated with the selfish motives that stain material relationships. In the material world, everyone is ultimately concerned with his or her own interest. Even our friendships are part of our plan for our own enjoyment.

Lord Krishna, by contrast, is always anxious for our ultimate well-being. Although we have turned away from Him, driven by our envy of His position as the supreme enjoyer, He continues to provide all our necessities. The air, the sun, our inherent abilities, and countless other gifts are all clear indications of His good will. And Krishna’s greatest expression of friendship is His association, which He generously offers us through the revealed scriptures, saints, and spiritual masters, who regularly appear throughout the millenniums to invite us back to the spiritual world.

The attractive, dynamic qualities of the soul tend to remain static in the material world because of the soul?s marriage with inert matter. As a result, the thrill of material relationships diminishes quickly. We grow bored seeing the same faces day in and day out. But Krishna is never boring, for His transcendental qualities are ever fresh and ever expanding.

In the Vedas it is stated that even if the scientists could count all the grains of sand on a beach or all the atoms in the universe, they could never estimate even one drop of God’s blissful, all-attractive features. The Nectar of Devotion offers an illuminating summary of Lord Krishna’s spiritual qualities. By studying this great work in a spirit of devotion, we can enhance our appreciation for the Lord and thus develop the desire to know His sublime friendship.

For example. The Nectar of Devotion explains that no one is more appreciative or reciprocative than Lord Krishna, as shown in His dealings with His friends. Once, a poor brahmana named Sudama offered Krishna a few grains of rice. Because Sudama was penniless, he was unable to present his Lord with a valuable gift, as was his desire, but because his humble offering was saturated with love, Krishna eagerly accepted it and ate it with great delight. Out of deep gratitude, Krishna reciprocated with Sudama by giving him more opulence than can be imagined even by the wealthiest person in this world, and in the end Sudama was granted entrance into Krishna’s spiritual abode. Hearing of Krishna’s limitless capacity for appreciating and reciprocating the love of His devotees can inspire us to rekindle our friendship with Him.

Lord Krishna is also the most faithful and considerate friend. He will never abandon us or allow us to feel neglected. Although His propensity to love is so great that He desires to interact with countless living beings simultaneously. He can do so without neglecting even one of them. When Krishna was in Dvaraka, He expanded Himself, by His supreme mystic power, into many Krsnas, giving spiritual bliss to each one of His sixteen thousand queens, each of whom thought that Krishna was residing with her alone.

Another reason that God’s friendship is the most desirable relationship is that it is eternal. In the material world we may sometimes form a relationship with another person that seems to be of sterling quality, but even that soon fades like a dream. At the time of death, the karma of both friends carries them far apart from one another, as strands of seaweed, meeting momentarily on the crest of a wave, are separated forever when the wave breaks to shore.

Happily, this is not the case if we befriend Krishna. The exchange between God and the living entity is never checked. Even if one begins the attempt to realize Krishna in this life and is not completely successful in his spiritual development, he begins in his next life from where he left off, until at last he achieves perfection.

Since we are all Krishna’s servants, it is important for us to remember that any attempt to approach Him must be attended by a serving attitude. Just as the Lord, out of His kindness, is always busy making arrangements for His devotees’ happiness, we must also try to act for His pleasure. This is the beginning of real love. And there is no loss for us if we agree to cultivate our devotional sentiments. In fact, serving Krishna is so relishable that Krishna Himself appeared in the form of a devotee, as Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, to taste this pleasure and to show us, by practical example, that there is no greater aspiration for the living being than to achieve Lord Krishna’s friendship.

The Krishna consciousness movement is in the direct line descending from Lord Chaitanya. It was established by Srila Prabhupada to assist those seriously interested in reviving their dormant love for God. Its doors are open to everyone. Persons who aspire for perfect friendship will certainly embrace this rare and wonderful opportunity to find lasting spiritual happiness in the eternal company of Lord Krishna, the perfect friend.

The Birth of God


“Of course, it is bewildering, O soul of the universe, that You take birth, though You are the vital force and the unborn.”—Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.8.30)

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who was born 499 years ago in West Bengal, India, to Jagannatha Mishra and Srimati Sacidevi, and who propagated the chanting of the names of God, is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

You won’t find that last part stated in the encyclopedias and history books where Lord Chaitanya’s name and biographical sketch are given, but after all, what can encyclopedias and history books teach us about the science of God? Perhaps persons whose interest in God and spiritual life is but superficial might find satisfaction in some academic biographical sketch. But those who want to know the truth about the identity of Lord Chaitanya and the transcendental nature of His birth and activities will have to consult the Vedic literature. Although usually associated with the grand civilization of ancient India, the Vedic literature is for all people and for all times. Provided we study it respectfully and intelligently under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, it is fully applicable today. And there’s really no other way of understanding the deep, mystical concepts of the science of God.

Often, when people hear that we accept Lord Chaitanya as God, they immediately pose certain questions about Him, trying, understandably, to get a handle on what to them is a new religious concept. They want to know where and when He was born, what His teachings and activities were, and so on.

You’ve had the experience—you try to fit a new idea into your scheme of things. So you may try to evaluate Lord Chaitanya in terms of, say, what was going on in Europe at the time: Renaissance, Reformation, Columbus, or what have you. The natural tendency will be to see Lord Chaitanya as a social or historical phenomenon, a product of His times and a reaction to them, just as was Luther, Thomas Aquinas, or any other important religious figure. When you hear that Lord Chaitanya was born fifteen centuries after Christ, you conclude that Lord Chaitanya’s is a new religion. And when you remind yourself that you never discussed Lord Chaitanya or read about Him in school and haven’t really heard of Him before, you conclude that He is of minor significance.

But wait a minute. To understand a personality of the stature and magnitude of Lord Chaitanya, you will have to break from your conventional ways of considering new ideas. You will have to broaden your outlook and admit information from new sources (new to you, that is). True, you need at first a few quick answers, some superficial facts. To be sure, someone did the same for me fourteen years ago, when I first began integrating myself into the spiritual movement started by Lord Chaitanya and disseminated by His pure devotee, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder and spiritual master of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. But superficial facts, although handy for a fill-in-the-blank quiz, tell us little of the transcendental nature of Lord Chaitanya’s birth and activities. That’s why, as I was saying, we have to consult the Vedic literature.

Birth of the Unborn

According to the Vedic literature and to the rigorous philosophical and devotional tradition known as Gaudiya- Vaishnavism, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna Himself. The main distinction between Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya is that when Krishna appears as Himself, He reveals Himself as God, whereas when He appears as Lord Chaitanya, He plays the part of a pure devotee of God. To understand the transcendental nature of Lord Chaitanya’s birth, therefore, we can do no better than to refer to the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, wherein Lord Krishna explains the transcendental nature of His own birth. In other words, although in the Gild Lord Krishna is speaking of His own transcendental birth, since He and Lord Chaitanya are one and the same, the philosophy stated there is as applicable to Lord Chaitanya as it is to Lord Krishna.

In the Gita the Lord says that He does not actually take birth; He is unborn (ajah), although He appears in the material world at various times. What to speak of God, even ordinary beings like you and me do not take birth. Just as God is eternal, so we, being part and parcel of Him, are also eternal. Of course, birth is a common, everyday occurrence, but what is that birth, really? You, I, and all other living beings are eternal spirit souls, transmigrating from one body to another, one species to another—birth after birth. And in each birth we forget entirely our previous material identity. Thus, in one life we may be an American, in the next a Russian; in one life we may be a human being, in the next an animal or plant. Yes, unborn and eternal we are, but we take birth again and again in the sense that we assume completely new material identities again and again.

Lord Chaitanya, however, exists beyond this world of birth and death, in His own eternal identity. When He takes birth within this material world, therefore, His birth is not like ours; He appears in His transcendental form of eternity, bliss, and knowledge.

The transcendental body of Lord Chaitanya is described in the Sanskrit language as avyayatma. Avyaya means “eternal, indestructible,” and atma refers to body, mind, and also soul. So, here we have an important distinction between our birth and the birth of Lord Chaitanya. Although we are eternal, we inhabit a temporary material body. For Lord Chaitanya, however, body and soul are one; both are spiritual. Therefore, of the Lord it is said, ajo ‘pi sann avyayatma: He is unborn, and His body is not material,but is transcendental and eternal.

Perhaps we can better understand the Lord’s transcendental birth with an analogy: the sun. The sun is always present in the sky, but it is not always visible to us. At sunset the earth comes between our eyes and the sun. Then twelve or so hours later, at sunrise, we can again see the sun. So although the sun may appear to be coming and going—taking birth and dying, according to some primitive peoples—it is always present. And like the sun, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is also always present. But because of our limited position, sometimes we see Him and sometimes we do not. When we speak of Lord Chaitanya’s appearing some five hundred years ago, we say He took birth. But actually, He had always been existing in His eternal, spiritual form and always will be. Thus the Lord’s birth is transcendental. In the Vedic literature the Lord is addressed as follows: “Of course, it is bewildering, O soul of the universe, that You take birth, though You are the vital force and the unborn” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.30).

Now what about the fact that Lord Chaitanya appeared as an infant and then grew to childhood,to youth, and to manhood? Does this mean that His body was ordinary, temporary, and material? No, not at all. The Lord is never afflicted by the material energy and is not subject to material laws. We, however, are under the illusion of matter, so much so that we view the Lord’s birth and activities as material. Again, for a clear understanding let’s refer to our analogy of the sun.

Metaphysical Handica

Which is greater, a cloud or the sun? The sun, of course. In fact, the sun creates the cloud. And yet at times a cloud may appear to cover the sun. This does not, however, attest to the sun’s limitation but to ours. We, not the sun, are covered by the cloud. Similarly, matter is a creation of God, and like a cloud, it prevents us from seeing Him. What to speak of God, even our very selves we cannot see, for we too are spirit (although at present, because of the covering of material illusion, maya, we can see only matter). When, for whatever reason, we judge the form or the activities or the birth of God to be material, that is because we, in our finite position, cannot see beyond the cloud of matter. It is our vision, and not the Lord, that is material.

Now what this should all come down to is the humbling realization that we are eminently unqualified to see or to know spirit, to comprehend the eternal form of God, to understand the transcendental birth of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. This metaphysical handicap plagues all living beings and would prevent us from ever rising out of our suffering repeated birth and death. But compassionately, Lord Chaitanya appeared on earth five centuries ago so that we, despite our limited senses and mind, could perceive His gorgeous form, hear His incomparable teachings, grasp His transcendental meaning, and thus be lifted out of the muck of material illusion. To consider His birth material, therefore, would be imprudent.

Another analogy: The chief of state may enter a government prison, but that does not make him a prisoner. Only a fool would scoff, “Ha! The president is a prisoner, like me.” Not only is the president not a prisoner, but he has the authority to free one who is. Similarly, because of our rebelling against God since time immemorial, this material world has become our prison, and we are incarcerated within these material bodies, serving a life-after-life sentence. When Lord Chaitanya, the supreme ruler of this prison (as well as of the eternally liberated realm beyond) comes here to free us, it behooves us to acknowledge His exalted position and not, like so many coarse prisoners, try to drag Him down to our level. By properly understanding the birth of Lord Chaitanya, we will attain the perfection of life. Therefore Lord Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita (4.9), “One who understands the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode.”

Lord Chaitanya’s taking birth seemingly like an ordinary infant is one of the most relishable topics for the Lord’s pure devotees . Of course, most people tend to fixate on a conception of God as the Almighty, the Creator. But hurling worlds into orbit and-parting seas do not constitute the greatest glories of God. A much higher and more intimate understanding of God is revealed in His humanlike birth and activities. Certainly Lord Chaitanya did not need to take birth as an infant; He could have simply manifested Himself, without any so-called mother or father. After all, He is the father of all living beings and of all existence. Ages ago, when the Lord appeared as the half man, half lion, Nrisimhadeva, He burst forth in one explosive moment from a stone pillar; towering and terrifying, He shook the entire universe with His power and rage. But in His appearance as Lord Chaitanya, a golden infant on the lap of His enraptured mother, He was no less God. In fact, experts in the bhakti science have ascertained that the Lord’s appearance as the child of two of His most exalted devotees displays the greatest mercy, both for His parents and for those so fortunate as to hear about His birth and childhood pastimes.

Divine Purpose

Lord Chaitanya came to this prison of the material world not like you and me, forced by the inexorable law of karma, but of His own free will. This is always the case when God descends. Forty-five centuries before Lord Chaitanya, Lord Krishna had enunciated the essence of spiritual instruction in His Bhagavad-gita: “Give up all religious duties and spiritual paths and simply surrender to Me.” Lord Chaitanya also came to teach surrender to Krishna, but, by perfectly playing the role of a pure devotee of Krishna, He not only taught surrender but also demonstrated it, specifically through chanting the holy names of God. Lord Chaitanya had other reasons for appearing, but these are beyond the scope of our present discussion. His propagation of the chanting of the holy names, however, was central to His mission.

According to the Vedic literature, Lord Chaitanya appeared during this present degraded age called Kali-yuga to establish the specific religious principle for all humanity. As the Sanskrit scriptures say, He came to establish the yuga- dharma, “the religion for the age.” And the yuga-dharma is the chanting of the holy names of God: kalau tad dhari-kirtanat. It is most fitting, therefore, that on the night of Lord Chaitanya’s birth, the holy name also advented.

On that night there occurred a full lunar eclipse, and as was the custom among strict followers of Vedic culture, millions of sincere devotees of God took their sacred bath standing waist-deep in the sea or in a holy river such as the Ganges. Throughout the duration of the eclipse, everyone remained standing in the water and, as was also the custom, chanted the holy names: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Even those who did not understand began mocking the chanting, until practically the whole of India resounded with the holy names.

This, of course, was no coincidence, but was an arrangement by the Lord to indicate the special significance of His birth: “I have come out of My mercy to lead the world back to Godhead. Everyone chant the holy names: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”