“So do not think that this movement is trying to convert you from Christian to Hindu. Remain a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim. It doesn't matter. But if you really want to perfect your life, then try to develop your dormant love for God. That is the perfection of life.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Journey of Self-Discovery, 5.1)
Comment: “I’ve read some of Prabhupada’s books and they are all just aimed at converting people to their philosophy. In this way they are no different than the Christian books or the missionaries who try to convert people to their own religion.”
Response: It is natural for people to view preachers of God consciousness with a little skepticism, taking them to be evangelists who are trying to get people to convert to their religion. After all, salesmen will try any technique to get us to buy their product, so religionists must be similar in this regard. However, there is a stark difference between the movement started by Lord Chaitanya five hundred years ago and some of the other popular forms of religious preaching. Lord Chaitanya’s sankirtana movement, the congregational chanting of the holy names of God, doesn’t aim to convert anyone to any specific religion, but rather, it tries to help people become reacquainted with their forgotten occupation, an occupation which they are naturally inclined to. That occupational duty, or dharma, is known as love for God.
As soon as you mention the word God, you introduce the concept of religion. As soon as religion is mentioned, people are apt to get defensive. “Such and such person is trying to convince us of some other philosophy, or they are trying to get me to abandon my current religion. What do they know anyway?” These sentiments are common because most people already believe in God, meaning that the majority of the world’s population is religious, or at least claims to be. One group claims they are Christians, while another follows the teachings of the Koran, while yet another claims to be Hindus. Each religion has certain beliefs and ideals that are exclusive to it, along with perfunctory regulations and rituals that the adherents observe.
Even though most of the world believes in God, we see that the primary occupations of man have little or nothing to do with God. To illustrate this point, we can do a quick study of the news media. Every day there are breaking stories on internet websites, in print newspapers, and on cable television about such and such breakthrough or study. “Caffeine will kill you; eating tomatoes cures cancer; you must sleep eight hours or you won’t live long, etc.” These stories interest us because who among us wouldn’t want to live longer? What many of us don’t realize, however, is that these stories don’t just come about on their own. There are loads of special interest groups who drive the news cycle. Essentially all you need is a organization with an acronym, an office, and a fax machine, and you can easily get your story circulated in the news.
There are literally thousands of these alphabet soup organizations. The ACLU, NRA, NOW, AFL-CIO, are some of the more prominent organizations who try to influence public policy. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is the organization that is responsible for driving many of the food-related news stories, such as certain cooking oils being bad for you, and the dangers the drinking soda pop. Since there are so many organizations out there, almost every trivial issue is covered. NOCIRC is one of the more intriguing organizations. Its full name is the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, and its aim is to stop the practice of circumcision. Who could ever imagine such a thing? This illustrates the beauty of the freedom that exists for the living entities. In America especially, a person can grow up having a dream of stamping out the practice of circumcision, and that dream can be realized by creating a professional organization.
Though each one of these groups has targeted areas of interest, they share two things in common. The first thing is that since the members of these organizations all come from the general public, we can logically deduce that their members must be religious. There may be a heterogeneous mixture of religious affiliations, but it’s safe to assume that most of the members agree that God exists. This begs the question that if they are religious and believe in God, why are they taking up causes that have nothing to do with spirituality?
Though the specific issues addressed by these organizations may warrant attention, they share a common bond in that they all deal with improving some material aspect of life. There are two energies at work in this world; the material and the spiritual. Something is considered material if it is related to matter. Any sane man can understand that matter is inferior to spirit. For example, our bodies are only useful as long as our soul resides within it. At the time of death, the soul exits the body, and then the deceased’s friends and family become sad. They realize that the person has left this world. The body remains right in front of them, however, so it is not matter that has exited, but rather, spirit. In Sanskrit, spirit is referred to as purusha, and matter as prakriti. Purusha can be considered to be male and prakriti to be female, hence spirit is the dominator of matter.
“Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.17)
Religion exists to help the plight of the soul, and not the body. While it is certainly noble to search for cures for cancer, or to find ways to adjust our diets so that we can live longer, in the end, we are still destined to die. Religion is the discipline which helps us deal with the future well-being of the soul, a soul which is imperishable and unbreakable. It is precisely to benefit this soul that the Vaishnava preacher kindly petitions everyone to take up devotional service to God.
Vaishnava refers to a devotee of Lord Vishnu, or God. Lord Vishnu is an expansion of Lord Krishna, whom the Vedas tell us is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This all may seem dogmatic, but Krishna is the same God that everyone in the world worships. There can only be one God, meaning that the different religious faiths all worship the same Supreme Person. The Vedas give us a little further insight into God’s names, forms, qualities, and pastimes.
The Vaishnava preacher acknowledges that different faiths certainly do exist, but that people should still take up the sublime occupation of devotional service to the Lord. What does devotional service mean? It is the discipline that involves dovetailing all of our activities with service to the Lord. This discipline is not dogmatic or specific to any one particular religion. Most of the world claims to belong to a particular faith, which then means that they must believe in God. The Vaishnava preacher begs people to be true to their faith and not just be religionists in name only. Being religious means taking part in spiritual activities.
Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s most recent incarnation to appear on earth, asked everyone to simply chant God’s names in a loving way, as often as possible. To unite the whole world under one cause, He asked everyone to take up chanting of the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This mantra is open to everyone, for it is not kept a secret. It doesn’t cost anything to chant, and there are no rules relating to when or where a person can recite this most sacred formula. Krishna and Rama are authorized names of God, and Hare addresses the Lord’s energy. Chanting isn’t limited to this mantra, however, for if people have their own authorized name of God, they can chant it and be equally benefitted.
Along with this chanting routine, Vaishnava preachers advise people to give up the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. Meat eating, as it is done today through the use of slaughterhouses, certainly isn’t a religious activity. We are all God’s creatures, so we should do our best not to inflict unnecessary harm on any other forms of life. We can easily survive by eating the plentiful vegetarian food that exists. Meat eating is also bad for our karma, for if we rely on killing innocent animals, we are sure to suffer the same fate in the future. This principle isn’t exclusive to followers of the Vedas; any educated person can understand the concept of “as you sow so shall you reap.”
Intoxication is harmful for obvious reasons. Government leaders and community activists try very hard to get people to not drive when they are drunk. So many people die each year due to alcohol related traffic accidents. If intoxication impairs our driving, it most certainly affects other aspects of our life. In this regard, the Vedic authorities ask everyone to be dhira, or sober. A sober person has a better chance of understanding God and taking up service to Him.
Gambling is bad for us because it agitates our mind; it often involves playing a game for some material benefit. Illicit sex is similar in this regard, as sex is considered the highest material pleasure. These activities should be given up because they only seek to gratify the material senses. Religion is about advancement of the soul, or spirit. Spirit is the antithesis of matter; material sense gratification has no place in any serious religious discipline.
The dangers of the four pillars of sinful life are easy enough to understand. They aren’t specific to any religion either. Any sober person can understand that these activities are harmful for the plight of the soul. More than anything else, the Vaishnava preachers teach us the religion of love. “Learn about God, know Him, and ultimately use that knowledge to love Him.” This is a process that anyone can take up, without having to change their religious affiliation. If there is any “conversion” in all of this, it’s a conversion in relation to the object of worship. Instead of claiming to belong to a religious faith while continuing to worship matter through the various pet causes we take up, we would be better served to worship spirit instead. We are all spirit souls, but God is the supreme spirit, so our life is meant to be dedicated to Him. If we chant His name regularly and always think about Him, we will be happy and true to our beliefs.