Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Samsara Chakra

Prahlada and Narasimhadeva “O most powerful, insurmountable Lord, who are kind to the fallen souls, I have been put into the association of demons as a result of my activities, and therefore I am very much afraid of my condition of life within this material world. When will that moment come when You will call me to the shelter of Your lotus feet, which are the ultimate goal for liberation from conditional life?” (Prahlada Maharaja speaking to Narasimhadeva, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.9.16)

The Vedas tell us that man is born with the four defects of having imperfect senses, the propensity to commit mistakes, being prone to be easily illusioned, and the tendency to cheat. It is natural for man to want to get ahead in life and make material gains very quickly. Cheating can help speed that process along, but as the saying goes, “Cheaters never win.” This is because cheating involves dishonesty and the practice of adharma, or irreligion. Though we may not see it, these impious actions have far-reaching unintended consequences.

Congressional districts The arena of politics serves as a great example to illustrate this point. In the modern age, the democratic style of government is very popular. Considered free and fair, democracy involves popular elections where leaders are appointed to their posts based on the will of the people. Because winning and losing depends on garnering more votes than your opponent, a politician’s duty is to try to enhance their popularity as much as possible. Yet this is not so easy, especially since the minds of voters constantly change based on economic and social conditions. If economic conditions are bad, with high unemployment rates and slow GDP growth, citizens are likely to rebel against incumbents. There is nothing a sitting officeholder can say or do to stop this tide.

For these reasons, politicians try to insulate themselves from the democratic process as much as possible. Essentially, they try to adjust things so that they, or their political party, can remain in power in perpetuity. In American political history, Elbridge Gerry is a notable figure. Not only was he a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but he was also involved with the practice of redrawing congressional districts for the express purpose of favoring political parties. This practice, now known as gerrymandering, is widely in place. The lower house of congress, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members elected from the fifty states. A state’s congressional delegation is determined by their population. The higher the population, the more congressional seats a state will get. The actual congressional districts themselves aren’t drawn arbitrarily. Rather, party leaders meticulously weave their way through the various counties in a state to try their best to make sure their incumbents remain in power. The population statistics for the country are compiled every ten years through the Census, and it is during these years that the congressional districts get redrawn. Thus it is considered extremely beneficial for a political party to be in power during a Census year. Gerrymandering is very simple. If say the Republican Party gets to redraw the district maps, they will try to tweak things so that Republican incumbents get put into districts that consist primarily of Republican voters. This will ensure an easy reelection campaign. For party leaders, putting a sitting Republican into a primarily Democrat district would not make any sense.

Yet cheating never pays. Even if there are short term gains for a particular party, the voting demographics of a state can always change. Drawing a “safe” district for one party member also means that the opposing party will also get their share of safe seats. For a party in power, should one of their safe seats somehow change hands, then the entire balance shifts. These are the unintended consequences of cheating in politics. In 1990 which was a Census year, the Democrat party was in charge of the House of Representatives and thus had influence over redistricting, but they were thrown out of power four years later. In 2000, the Republicans were in control of the House, and they too were thrown out of power only six years later, thus proving that gerrymandering and other forms of cheating can only take you so far.

Bhagavad-gita The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that the material world is governed by karma, or fruitive activity. Every action that we perform has a commensurate reaction. We are all hankering after things that we want and lamenting over things that we don’t have. There is nothing wrong with earning an honest living or working hard to achieve a goal. However, we must remember that karma is completely fair, meaning that every other living entity has an equal right to the fruits of their labor. This means that cheating never pays because in the end, someone else will end up cheating us in return. Many times we end up cheating ourselves without even knowing it.

Above the material world is a spiritual realm where karma doesn’t exist. Karma is a material energy, created by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. We living entities are here in this material world because we have a desire to enjoy nature. God Himself has no interest in our material gains and losses. In essence, He is an innocent bystander. Moreover, He wants us to return to His spiritual realm because that is where the spirit soul can be truly happy. Nevertheless, He allows the demigods and the forces of karma to manage material affairs. Thus we are forced to suffer the reactions of our work. If we are pious, we go to the heavenly planets after death, and if we are sinful, we suffer in hell. When our accumulated merits and demerits expire, we return to the material world and repeat the cycle of birth and death.

Mirabai performing devotional service This cycle of suffering is known as samsara-chakra, or the wheel of material existence, and is not natural. The spirit soul is by nature happy and full of knowledge. The material world is a place of nescience where our purity is contaminated through the assumption of a body composed of material elements. The actual business of man is service to the Supreme Lord. This discipline is known as bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service. Since it is the eternal occupation of man to engage in religious activity, the Vedas refer to religion as sanatana-dharma. This occupation is sanatana because it never changes. Regardless of the material condition, whether we are in an advanced technological age or in the stone ages, our constitutional position remains that of servant to the Supreme Lord. Our dharma, or religious duty, never changes. The spirit soul can only be happy when it associates with the spiritual energy. We are the same as God in that we are both spirit, however, God can never associate with His inferior energy, material nature, whereas we living entities not only associate with maya, but we become illusioned by her.

HanumanDevotional service, like karmic activity, also has unintended consequences, but these consequences are all beneficial to us. Our end-goal is to think of God at the time of death, for that guarantees an end to rebirth. Devotional service can involve nine different processes, the primary of which are hearing and chanting. Hearing is the best process for receiving transcendental knowledge. Chanting is the best way to purify our speech. By regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, out loud, we also engage in the hearing process, thereby doubling the benefits received.

Devotional service means associating with the spiritual energy. Those who are in constant association with God automatically acquire all good traits. They start to view everyone equally, and they lose their desire to cheat. Krishna is the origin of dharma, or righteousness, so those who sincerely serve Him automatically become aware of the rules of propriety. We can see evidence of these principles by studying the lives of the great Vaishnava saints. Hanuman, Prahlada, Bhishma, Janaka, etc. were all outstanding individuals who were greatly respected. To this day, Hanuman remains one of the most famous and revered religious figures in the world. His name is synonymous with love and devotion to God. He is the epitome of dharma.

“O Shri Nrihari, please deliver those human beings who have suffered all kinds of torments and been ripped apart by the sharp edge of samsara's wheel but who have now somehow found You and are surrendering themselves unto You." (Shrila Shridhara Svami offering prayers to Lord Narasimhadeva)

Narasimhadeva with devotees These great saints didn’t need to cheat at all. They honestly practiced devotional service and achieved perfection as a result. We cannot imitate their extraordinary activities, but we can learn from the example they set. Instead of making material adjustments here and there, we simply have to make the adjustment to spiritual life and all our troubles will vanish.