“O Brahma, whatever appears to be of any value, if it is without relation to Me, has no reality. Know it as My illusory energy [maya], that reflection which appears to be in darkness.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.9.34)
One of the most harmful aspects of material life is that it can never be satisfying enough. Material life means associating with maya, or God’s energy which pervades the material creation. Maya tells us that we will be happy trying to satisfy our senses through various activities, thus tempting us into taking up sinful activity. Not only do sins carry negative future consequences, but they have an inherent illusory aspect. This illusion clouds our minds and leads us astray from the path of righteousness, or dharma. If sinful activity continues unchecked, it can lead to our demise.
Dharma means religion, religiosity, or righteousness. There can be different duties for different people based on time and circumstance, but the underlying system of spiritual life is known as sanatana-dharma, or the eternal occupation of man. The Vedas tell us that the eternal dharma is something that never changes, meaning man has only one primary duty in life; that of reconnecting with God. Sometimes people shy away from religion or religious life because they don’t like the rules and regulations associated with it. On the surface, it appears that religion punishes people for no reason. “All the pain and suffering that goes with religious life, why would I want to subject myself to that? Life should be fun, and I don’t want to waste my time punishing myself.” In reality, dharma exists to make our life fun. What we currently view as fun, material life and sinful activity, actually causes us great harm in the end.
There are various definitions for what actually constitutes sinful activity or sinful life, but at its core, a sin is something that goes against scriptural injunctions. Sins have negative reactions attached to them, such as punishment in hellish planets in the afterlife, but the most detrimental part of sinful life is that it causes one to be bound to the cycle of birth and death. Our soul is eternal, but our body is not. The activities of this life are a preparation for the next life. In the same way that we make plans for the next day, week, and month in our day-to-day affairs, the aggregate total of our actions in this life works towards developing the type of body we receive in the next life. Our consciousness, developed by our work and desires, at the time of death determines where are soul will next end up.
“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.6)
At the time of death, if our consciousness in on the spiritual platform, i.e. things relating to Krishna or one of His expansions, we assume a spiritual body in the next life. A spiritual body is a requirement for those desiring residence on a spiritual planet. Spiritual planets are free of miseries and suffering, and they are eternal. Just the opposite is true with the material planets. The repeated performance of sinful activity causes our consciousness at the time of death to be on material things. The four primary sinful activities are meat eating, intoxication, gambling, and illicit sex. The negative reactions to these activities are easily perceptible. Meat eating involves unnecessary violence towards animals, gambling involves some sort of cheating, intoxication removes our cleanliness both within and without, and illicit sex causes us to be attached to sex life. These four activities are the most harmful because they keep the mind attached to the temporary, miserable world.
“The material atmosphere, in which we are now living, is called maya, or illusion. Maya means "that which is not." And what is this illusion? The illusion is that we are all trying to be lords of material nature, while actually we are under the grip of her stringent laws. When a servant artificially tries to imitate the all-powerful master, he is said to be in illusion.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Science of Self-Realization, Ch 5c)
Maya is known as God’s illusory energy because she entices us into acting sinfully. Illusion means taking something to be what it is not. Since maya causes us to be bound to the cycle of birth and death, she is the cause of misery. However, her true illusion lies in the fact that she makes us think we’ll be happy by associating with her. Modern society is a perfect illustration of this fact. As time continues to pass from the beginning of creation, man’s affinity for adharma, or irreligion, steadily increases. We are currently in the last of the four Yugas, Kali Yuga, so we see that adherence to dharma is minimal. This means that sinful activity is rampant. Due to our rebellious nature, we are constantly trying to introduce more and more sinful activity into our daily lives.
Modern society is practically a sinner’s paradise. Many people think that Christians or other religious groups are on the rise today, but one look at the current situation in America disproves this notion. Millions of animals are killed in the slaughterhouses each year, including poor innocent cows. Religious leaders raise no objection to these activities. Gambling is so rampant that many state governments actually promote it since it brings in higher tax revenues. Intoxication is so widespread that there are growing movements to legalize more forms of it, such as marijuana use. Illicit sex is not restricted in any way. Men and women freely intermingle, and if a woman happens to get pregnant by accident, there is no hesitation in killing the unborn child in the womb through the abortion process. In many states, men can marry men and women can marry women without a problem. Marriage is actually a religious institution created by God as a way to curb sex life, but modern society has made up its own definition and use for it.
The atheists and those committed to adharma should be thrilled with the current situation. They’ve gotten everything they wanted. Since there is virtually no self-policing with regards to sinful activity, everyone should be happy, no? Well we see that this is obviously not the case. If anything, people are more unhappy today than they have ever been. The political landscape proves this notion. The country has jumped from one party to another. The State of the Union Addresses given by presidents are eagerly anticipated, for people are looking for anything to bring them out of their misery. Others are constantly worrying that all of their wealth and possessions will disappear in an instant through economic forces. Others are worried their life of sense gratification will come to an end.
So we see that addiction to sinful activity actually proves to be more harmful than beneficial. This is proof of the illusion. It is similar to how young children complain about the rules imposed by the parents. Good parents force their children to regulate their eating, sleeping, and leisure habits. Meals must be eaten on time, junk food must be avoided, and television viewing is regulated. The current societal predicament is equivalent to putting the children in charge of the house. If the kids were to run things, they would eat whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Ice cream, candy, and pizza would be served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Adult movies and video games would be on the television day and night. Everyone would go to sleep very late, for there would be no benefit to sleeping on time and getting up early. This life seems appealing to children, but if they were left in charge, they would soon suffer misery as a result of their unregulated activities. This is how maya works. If we associate with her, we will never be satisfied, and in the end, we will meet with doom.
A great example of this was seen many thousands of years ago, during the Treta Yuga, which is the second time period of creation. A Rakshasa demon by the name of Ravana had ascended to power. After performing great austerities, he pleased the demigods and received material benedictions from them. Ravana became so powerful that no one could defeat him in battle. He set up a kingdom on the island of Lanka where he and his fellow Rakshasas dedicated their lives to sinful activity. Lanka, like society today, was a sinner’s paradise. On one occasion Lord Hanuman, the great devotee of Lord Rama, travelled through Ravana’s kingdom. The Sundara-kanda of the Valmiki Ramayana details what Hanuman saw. Lanka was full of opulence, with many beautiful palaces made of gold. Ravana himself had hundreds of beautiful wives. Everyone was always drunk off wine, with many of the women falling asleep on each other since they were so intoxicated. Ravana himself used to drink wine into the wee hours of the night and enjoy sex life with all his queens. Rakshasas also were dedicated meat eaters. They would range the night and kill great sages and then eat their flesh.
To give protection to the saintly class, Lord Krishna came to earth as Lord Rama, a gallant and brave kshatriya warrior. To protect the sages from the Rakshasas, Rama roamed the forests of India for a brief period of time, accompanied by His wife, Sita Devi, and younger brother, Lakshmana. On one occasion, Ravana’s sister went to Rama’s cottage and propositioned Him. An argument ensued with Lakshmana eventually disfiguring her. She then returned to Lanka and told her brother what happened. Ravana then sent 14,000 Rakshasas to attack Rama. The Lord single-handedly killed all of them without any effort. One of the Rakshasas, Akampana, escaped and returned to Lanka and told Ravana what had transpired. He warned Ravana not to attack Rama, for the demon would be easily defeated in battle. Instead, he advised Ravana to try to kidnap Rama’s beautiful wife, Sita.
“O Ravana, you will see your city of Lanka, which currently is filled with great palatial buildings bedecked with jewels, devastated on account of your desire to kidnap Maithili (Sita).” (Maricha speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 38.25)
Ravana liked this idea and went to his advisor, Maricha, to see if he could help. In the above referenced statement, Maricha is sternly warning Ravana against such a plan. He knew that if Ravana were to kidnap Sita, Rama would march to Lanka and destroy Ravana and his city. This is a great example of how maya works. Ravana had every material opulence imaginable. No demigod could defeat him in battle; he had all the wine he could ever want, and he had hundreds of beautiful queens. Yet simply by hearing of Sita’s beauty, he became deadest of committing the most heinous of crimes. This is the allure of illicit sex, the most dangerous of all sinful activities.
It was all because of one woman that Ravana lost everything. Though Ravana didn’t take his advice, Maricha’s words would hold true, as Rama would indeed end up killing Ravana in retaliation for Sita’s kidnap. Rama destroyed everything that Ravana worked so hard to achieve. The lessons from Ravana’s life are many, the most important of which is that sinful activity should be curbed. Does this mean we should simply sit quietly and renounce all activity? We can certainly try this method, but it will be very difficult to perform. This is because it is the inherent nature of the soul to be active and to want variety in its activities. An easier way to avoid sinful life is to take to bhakti yoga, or devotional service.
The beauty of devotional service is that it not only helps us avoid sinful life, but it reconnects us with God. This is its primary function. Everything directly related to God is spiritual. The Supreme Lord is referred to as Bhagavan, meaning one who possesses all opulences and fortunes. Anything directly related to Him or His service is known as bhagavata. Devotional service is thus known as bhagavata-dharma because of its relation to Bhagavan, or God. There are nine different processes of devotional service, with chanting and hearing being the foremost among them. Hearing about God and regularly reciting His name will make us happier and happier, and help us prepare our spiritual body for the next life. There is nothing illusory about activities in devotional service, for the results come as advertised.