You Can Take It With You

“I’m taking some good courses in college.”

“That’s great. Tell me about some of them.”

I cradle the phone on my shoulder as I help Jahnu, my three- year-old grandson, settle down to his lunch. Sitting next to him, I listen as a graduate of our school tells me about his classes, teachers, and life in general.

“What about all those classes you took in that university overseas?” I ask.

“Oh, credit for them doesn’t transfer. Here in America, half a year is a complete course, but over there you need three years to finish a course, and I only had one and a half years.”

“That’s not very good. What a lousy deal!”

Jahnu is eating pieces of fried homemade cheese by nibbling around the edges. He has finished most of them but hasn’t touched the noodles. I had put basil on them, which he identifies as “spices,” disqualifying them as edible.

“No, I don’t get any credit for that,” my former student replies.

“What about your study toward your pilot’s license? Can any of that transfer to your present school?”

“No.” A pause. “I’m not getting my degree in aviation, so none of that work will count toward the credits I need.”

“How awful!” I say, and then smile and quip, “So you’ve wasted the last four years of your life.”

“Really? But I’ve been chanting Hare Krishna!”

“Oh, yes, that transfers!”

“Even if you get a D grade, it still transfers!” he says, and we laugh.

Carrying Reactions

We’re busy in life trying for success, however we measure it. As we depart from our body at death, some of us may be able to check off our list of accomplishments. But how useful are achievements that end with the body? And the body may end at any time. Of course, while in our body we have responsibilities. But we are eternal beings. Shouldn’t we be mostly concerned with successes that benefit us forever? Like my student’s hard work at his former university, our academic degrees, job skills, bank balance, and artistic creations won’t follow us to our next body.

What we do carry from one life to the next are the reactions—good and bad—to our desires and actions. And we might also take along tendencies or interests that help us learn something faster in our new body. We may have a natural feel for something if we’ve done it for many lifetimes. But even those tendencies may fade after many births, and, except in rare cases, we still have to learn and practice rigorously, no matter what level of success we achieved in other bodies.

Achievements of the soul are different. When the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna appeared on earth thousands of years ago, His friend Arjuna asked about transferring spiritual credits. Arjuna’s question is part of their recorded conversation, the Bhagavad-gita. Arjuna understood the difficulty in achieving total purity in spiritual life, especially gaining control over one’s mind and senses. What would happen, he asked, if someone started spiritual life but didn’t complete the process? Wouldn’t he or she lose everything? Since spiritual life can mean less emphasis on material goals, those would go unfulfilled, and one would have gained neither spiritually nor materially. So would one end up with a grade of “Incomplete” on the cosmic transcript? No credits toward the degree?

No, Krishna assured Arjuna. Evil never overcomes real goodness, and the slightest progress keeps one enrolled in the school of spiritual life.

What’s the observable result of past spiritual progress? One takes birth in a family where spiritual life is safe, or, if one’s progress has been great, strongly encouraged. And one feels a natural interest in developing a relationship of love and service to the Supreme Lord. That interest surpasses sectarian rituals and dogma; it is a craving to know and live the essence of religion.

Jahnu’s Studies

Jahnu had helped me offer our food to Lord Krishna before he ate. Now done, noodles untouched, he sits and looks at books of Krishna’s pastimes, identifying the characters and praising Krishna. Jahnu’s spiritual credits have transferred to this life. Perhaps he will complete his “studies” this lifetime. Perhaps he will love Lord Krishna fully, free from lust, anger, greed, and envy. We hope for that, guiding him as we ourselves strive for perfection. But even if his life’s achievement is less than perfect, all his spiritual emotions and realizations will follow him through his lifetimes until he’s eligible to regain his place as Krishna’s pure devotee.