“In the material world there is keen competition between animal and animal, man and man, community and community, nation and nation. But the devotees of the Lord rise above such competitions.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.1.2 Purport)
The human species lives mostly in the mode of passion, performing fruitive activity in the hopes of acquiring fortune, fame, and peace of mind. Since we all have an equal right to perform our activities and work hard for our goals, there are bound to be collisions along the way. This inevitably leads to the formation of rivalries, wherein living entities compete with each other for various rewards and material honors. In the world of sports, the concept of the rivalry is very prevalent, and even considered beneficial from a marketing and profit-making perspective. However everything in this material world is temporary, and if we don’t come to a higher understanding, this rivalry mentality can be very dangerous.
In India, there are many different schools of religious thought that claim to be followers of the Vedas, the ancient scriptures emanating from Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. These different groups each summarize their beliefs into one specific term such as advaita-siddhanta, dvaita-siddhanta, vishishtadvaita-siddhanta, etc. These terms all describe the relationship between the spirit soul and God. Advaita is commonly misinterpreted to mean that there is no difference between God, and that we are all God in a sense. This is the view of the impersonalist philosophers, or Mayavadis. Devotees of God, however, understand that advaita certainly means that we are non-different from God in a sense, but that He still remains superior to and different from us. This is the philosophy expounded by Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s most recent incarnation who appeared in India some five hundred years ago.
Advaita means non-dual and it is an appropriate term to describe what is known as Brahman. Since God is the creator of everything, every aspect of this creation, including all the living entities, can be classified as Brahman, or the supreme whole. Since all of us are constitutionally the same, for we are all minute jiva-souls, there is no difference between one living entity and another. Just as the arm is considered part of the body, we living entities are considered part of God’s complete energy. Though there is no difference between God and His energy, there still remains a difference in identity. God is not the same as us, for we have no power to create, maintain, or destroy anything on as grand as a scale as the universe. Lord Chaitanya’s philosophy is called achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, meaning there is an inconceivable and simultaneous oneness and difference between God and the living entities. We are similar to God in quality, but different in quantity. We are minute souls, jivatmas, while God is the supreme soul, or Paramatma. We are independent controllers of our bodies, ishvara, while God is the controller of everything, parameshava.
“The impersonal Brahman can be conceived by persons who are already in the inferior energy of the Lord, but the Personality of Godhead cannot be conceived unless one is in the transcendental position.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 10.2 Purport)
If God is superior to us, why does the concept of advaita even apply? God’s original form is that of Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He then expands Himself as the Supersoul residing within the heart of every living entity. Finally, there is a less granular realization of God known as Brahman. Not every person is apt to understand Bhagavan or Paramatma, but understanding Brahman is a good stepping stone. How does one understand Brahman? The first thing one must realize is that there is a non-duality between all forms of life. In the Vedic system, the brahmanas, or priests, are considered the highest division in society. Brahmana actually means one who knows Brahman. In the great Vedic texts, one will find many references to the fact that the idea of oneness between living entities is exclusive to brahmanas.
Since they are the smartest people in society, it would make sense that the brahmanas would understand that every living entity is an equal part and parcel of the supreme whole. This is not an easy platform of understanding to reach, for every person, by default, adopts the bodily conception of life. What are the symptoms of such a mindset? People who identify solely with the body believe that they are inherently different from other living entities simply based off bodily traits. The concepts of racism and nationalism rely on this thinking. “I am black; I am white; I am American; I am Indian, etc.” While these bodily descriptions certainly are valid, they don’t represent our true identity. The body is something which is created, maintained, and then ultimately destroyed. It is perishable, while the spirit soul residing within the body is imperishable. It is foolish to base one’s identity solely on their body which is constantly changing. We may be an American in this life, but we could very easily take birth as a Russian or a German in the next life. Does that mean we become lower life forms? Certainly not.
If we remain stuck on the bodily conception of life, we remain prone to the forces of nature. One of the primary side effects of material life is that it can lead to fierce competition with our fellow man. We see this in the area of economics quite often. People will complain that all the jobs are going overseas or that there is a large trade deficit, meaning that one country is buying more goods from foreign countries than it is selling home-grown products to outsiders. It is the natural desire of the living entity to want to better its own condition, but if this desire is left unchecked, it can lead to fierce competition, and a general loss of rationality.
A great example of competition is in action can be seen in the sports world, and especially in the sport of tennis. During the 1990s, two American stars, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, forged a great rivalry which drew the attention of sports fans throughout the world. Tennis is a worldwide sport, but it is generally not very popular in America when compared to other major sports such as American football, baseball, and basketball. This changes, however, when there are prominent American players at the top of the game. In the early 1980s, there was a huge boom in the popularity of tennis due to the rise of American players John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. McEnroe had a great rivalry with Swedish star, Bjorn Borg, which also helped propel him to the national spotlight.
Agassi and Sampras were two completely different players, both on and off the court. Sampras was shy, quiet, and reserved. Agassi was known as being flamboyant, always sporting unique hairstyles and donning extravagant outfits. Agassi’s tennis play relied on brutal baseline strokes. He is considered one of the greatest pure ball strikers of all time. He almost never ventured to the net, for he loved to sit at the baseline and move his opponent around from side to side. Sampras was an attacker. He had a huge serve, and he would follow that up by rushing to the net. The matchups between these two players essentially boiled down to one great server versus a great returner.
The rivalry was very strong, but Sampras pretty much won all the big matches. Even when Agassi was playing his best, Sampras could still beat him, as he did at the 1995 U.S. Open Final and the 1999 Wimbledon Final. In fact, Sampras’ very last professional match was against Agassi at the U.S. Open Final in 2002. At the time, Sampras had not won a tournament during the previous two years, and was seriously contemplating retirement. Agassi was still high in the rankings, but once again, Sampras came out on top. Pete decided to retire after that, feeling there was nothing left for him to accomplish. Agassi hung around for a few more years, but at the end of their careers, Sampras had the better of Agassi as far as accomplishments went. Sampras won 14 Grand Slam Titles (a record at the time), and finished number one in the world for six consecutive years. Agassi had 8 Grand Slam Titles.
Though both players have been retired for several years now, their rivalry came into play recently during an exhibition match. The country of Haiti was recently devastated with a massive earthquake, and people around the world have taken to holding charity events to raise money to help the people of the country. Agassi and Sampras, along with current stars of tennis, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, played an exhibition doubles match, named the Hit for Haiti. Federer and Sampras were on one team, and Nadal and Agassi on another.
Anyone familiar with exhibition tennis matches knows that these are generally lighthearted affairs. Normal tennis matches are very stressful; the crowd stays quiet during the points and the players don’t show too much outward emotion since they are busy concentrating on the task at hand. Exhibition matches are meant to be the opposite; a low-key affair where players can let their hair down, so to speak. Most of the time the players don’t even care about the outcome; they are mainly interested in having a good time.
This exhibition match was meant to be even more low-key, as the funds were being raised for the people struggling in Haiti. All four players were wearing microphones, so the entire stadium could hear them during the match. At one point, Sampras, at the urging of Agassi, decided to entertain the crowd by doing an impersonation of Agassi. These impersonations are also quite common at these events; they are similar to comedians roasting each other. Sampras imitated Agassi’s walk and the way he gets ready for a return of serve. It was very lighthearted and everyone was laughing. Sampras then asked Agassi to retaliate. To everyone’s surprise, Agassi decided to open his pockets and say, “I don’t have any money. No, wait, I’ve got a dollar.”
The comment was in reference to a revelation contained in Agassi’s recent autobiography, Open. In the book, Agassi describes an incident from the past where both he and Sampras happened to be at the same restaurant one night. Sampras left right before Agassi, so Andre decided to ask the valet how much Sampras had tipped him. The valet said that Sampras gave him a dollar, a fact Agassi deemed worthy enough for inclusion in his book.
Sampras did not take too well to this insult dished out by Agassi in front of a packed stadium of fans who had come to see a charity tennis match. Sampras thought that Agassi had gotten personal. In retaliation, Sampras drilled his next serve right at Agassi’s head. Agassi ducked and the ball missed him, but he was still shaken up by the gesture. It led him to make another comment about Sampras’ stingy tipping habits. Roger Federer, Sampras’ teammate, immediately joked about how serious the two men took their rivalry. Federer and Nadal are considered to be modern rivals on the tennis court, though their relationship is quite friendly both on and off the court.
“But action performed with great effort by one seeking to gratify his desires, and which is enacted from a sense of false ego, is called action in the mode of passion.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.24)
Now both Sampras and Agassi have been retired for years, so this behavior shown at a charity exhibition is quite astonishing. We’re supposed to get wiser and more detached as we get older. This incident illustrates the dangerous nature of the mode of passion, as it manifests in competition. The false ego is so fragile, that any little comment can trigger retaliation.
Competition certainly isn’t the worst thing in the world, for we all must perform actions to maintain our body. Earning an honest living and competing fairly with other athletes certainly isn’t overtly sinful, but one should understand that the rewards of such competition are only temporary. As much success as we may have in our material ventures, our glory will one day come to an end. The secret to a successful life is to perform our prescribed duties with detachment to the results and the fruits acquired.
“Be steadfast in yoga, O Arjuna. Perform your duty and abandon all attachment to success or failure. Such evenness of mind is called yoga.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.48)
This is much easier said than done. As we saw in the example of Sampras and Agassi, even after retiring from a sport and not having any concern for fame and fortune, one can still hold an attachment to their legacy and ego. The key to acquiring detachment is to first gain an attachment to God. This is the real meaning of life. Our material fortunes and relationships come and go, but our relationship with God is eternal. If we think of Him at the time of death, we never have to take birth again.
“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.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.15)
The easiest way to think about God is to regularly recite His name in a loving way, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This chanting can be performed by any person, at any stage in life. Chanting is part of bhakti-yoga, or the process whereby one connects their soul with God in a loving way. Krishna is the source of Brahman, so if we understand Him, we’ll realize that all living entities are in the same boat. Instead of competing with one another, we can work together for the highest cause, that of returning back home, back to Godhead.