Sunday, May 16, 2010

Self Help

Lord Krishna “By the grace of the Lord, those who have lost their self-knowledge since time immemorial, and who because of this ignorance are involved in a material, conditional life full of miseries, obtain the chance to meet the Lord's devotee. I accept that Supreme Personality of Godhead as the supreme spiritual master.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 8.24.46)

Self-help books sell very well in the bookstores. The self-help gurus who appear on television are also successful in selling their products and systems. This is because most of us are unhappy and we’re looking for ways to find peace of mind. To meet this demand, others have created varieties of self-improvement programs and regimens aimed at getting us out of our funk. Yet we can understand that these systems ultimately fail to deliver on their promises due simply to the fact that so many systems exist. For real help, we need to consult the authoritative scriptures passed down from Lord Krishna, God Himself.

The reason most of us are unhappy is because we’ve run out of things that provide us joy. The “unhappy” can generally be categorized into two groups. First there are those who have failed to achieve their life’s goals. Either they wanted great wealth and fame, or they wanted to have a nice spouse and family to come home to, but neither of these materialized in the end. This left them terminally unhappy, constantly bemoaning their condition. The other group consists of people who have achieved what they wanted in life. They have everything they need and want; from material possessions to familial relationships. Though they worked hard to get where they are in life, they are still left wanting more. “What is the point to life? I have everything I ever wanted, but I’m still unhappy.” This is often the case with famous celebrities, especially musicians and movie stars.

Metallica at Donington The VH1 television show, Behind the Music, was very popular during the late 1990s. The show chronicled the ups and downs of famous artists and musicians throughout history. Though the actual names and circumstances were different in each case, the stories were almost always the same. A band went from obscurity to worldwide fame in a very short period of time. Inevitably certain members of the band took to drugs and alcohol as a way of life. Sex and drugs are the two things most commonly associated with rock n roll. Several great musicians of the past have died as a result of their drug and alcohol addiction. Fans are then left wondering how something like that could happen. Members of famous rock bands feel a thrill that most of us will never feel. They stand on stage and play to thousands of adoring fans who hang on their every move and word. Rock stars have millions of dollars in the bank and beautiful women throwing themselves at them. How could anyone be unhappy living such a lifestyle?

As celebrities soon find out, fame and fortune aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. In the end, the rich and famous find themselves in the same boat as those who have failed to achieve their dreams. Everyone is left wanting something else in life, the missing piece of the puzzle. When we are down in the dumps, what solutions do we try? In reality, we try anything and everything. The local bookstores are filled with books about how to think positively and how to be successful in life. Each person has their own specific ideas. “You must write down the ten things you like about yourself…You must do these five things to be successful in business…You must follow this diet plan to improve your self-esteem.”

Bookstores Self-help gurus don’t limit themselves to the bookshelves. They are all over the television networks, especially during the odd-hours of the day when infomercials run. Some of the people selling these programs are just sheer hustlers who are out to exploit the innocent public. They know that people are unhappy so they put together testimonials and other hype that aim to lure the customer into thinking they will be happy. There are others, however, who are genuine in their desire to help. They themselves were once unhappy and down in the dumps. They developed some plan on their own which ultimately led to an improved conditioned. Being unselfish, these people then took to helping others solve the same problems.

These self-help programs can surely provide some short-term relief. This is especially true of the exercise regimens. Most of us feel like we could stand to lose a few pounds, so we don’t shy away from trying various exercise programs. The successful programs are those that incorporate both an exercise regimen and a strict dieting routine. For those who are obese, following these guidelines isn’t easy. It requires hard work and dedication to lose weight and become fit. In the end, those who are successful in achieving the body they want are surely better off for it. They feel energized and their self-esteem also goes up.

“The mode of passion is born of unlimited desires and longings, O son of Kunti, and because of this one is bound to material fruitive activities.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.7)

Lord Krishna The problem with all of these programs is that they only provide short-term relief to our unhappiness. That is the inherent nature of the mode of passion, rajo-guna. Passion is born of desire, and the Vedas tell us that material desire can never be satisfied. The mode of passion can be thought of in this light. Picture a man stuck in a ditch with no access to food except for a tree which hangs right above him. Little by little, the tree provides drops of nectar. Each time the stranded man receives this nectar, he is satisfied for a little bit. But after a while, he immediately looks back to the tree and eagerly awaits the next drop of food. In essence, the nectar is merely an illusion, for it never provides complete satisfaction. It repeatedly tempts the person in the ditch and tricks them into thinking that the next drop will the one that will take away all of their suffering.  The person in the ditch essentially forgets about trying to get out of their precarious condition, for they become enamored with the trickling nectar.

This is the nature of the material world, which is governed by maya. Those of us who strictly engage in the mode of passion become subject to this illusion. The only permanent way out is to take to suddha-sattva, or pure goodness. Above the three modes of material nature, pure goodness means connecting directly with God. This is the recommendation put forth by Vedic authority, which is the original self-help system. God knew that we would be unhappy here, so He passed down a set of codes and guidelines to be followed to allow us to achieve transcendental happiness. Hence the Vedas originate from God, and thus represent perfect knowledge.

People might scoff at this suggestion of turning to religion. “I just want to be happy. I don’t want to get all religious. There are so many different religions out there, and I’m not a very spiritual person.” In actuality, all the self-help systems out there are each their own manufactured form of religion. There is the self-help guru, who represents a spiritual master type person, or even a god. There is the self-help book or video which is a form of scripture. There are set guidelines that must be followed and stages that one must go through; these represent sacraments. There are also things that are to be avoided, i.e. sins. No religion would be complete without the promise of an ideal life of happiness at the end, the panacea that we all dream about.

Parampara system The problem with these religions is that they are all concocted by man. As we all know, to ere is human, meaning that the human mind is not capable of coming up with a perfect knowledge system. The Vedas represent real knowledge because they come directly from Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The great Vedic authors didn’t invent any system, but rather just wrote down and memorized the information as they heard it from their spiritual master, who in turn heard it from their spiritual master and so on. This is how the parampara system, or disciplic succession, works. A bona fide religious system is one that can trace its lineage back to God.

Radha Krishna One may argue against the authenticity of the Vedas. “There are so many religions out there who claim to be bona fide, how do I know the Vedas are superior?” The great Vedic spiritual masters never decry any religious system, for the end-goal should always be the same; knowing and loving God. Any religious system which helps one rekindle their forgotten relationship with the Supreme Lord is a bona fide one. God is one. There cannot be a God for one group of people and a different God for another group. There are different religions out there today, each having their own specific doctrines, but none of them really describe the Lord’s attributes. This is where the Vedas are unique. They tell us that the Lord is a person who has names, forms, and spiritual attributes. He enacts specific pastimes for the benefit of others.

Not only do the Vedas tell us what God looks like, but they also tell us what our relationship with Him is. God is great and we are His subordinates. The sooner we realize this, the better. This doesn’t mean that we become slaves held against our will by an angry God. On the contrary, the Vedas tell us that Lord Krishna is the nicest and most merciful person, and that we should voluntarily agree to become His loving servant. This fact unlocks the secret to life. We can only become truly happy when we realize that we are not meant to imitate God. The Lord has the shoulders of a lion and can thus carry any burden. Constantly hankering and lamenting is not our natural condition; we are meant to be eternally happy living in God’s company.

So how do we become servants of God? What does it mean to have a loving relationship with the Lord? The Vedas tell us to engage in bhakti yoga, or devotional service. This is the original self-help system. When we engage in the mode of passion, we perform activities aimed at pleasing our senses. Devotional service involves performing similar activities but for the benefit of the Supreme Lord. This means that we can chant, dance, read books, offer prayers, sing songs, worship the deity, etc., and be participating in pure spiritual activities. The key is to spend time with Krishna. There is no difference between God and His names, forms, and pastimes. Thus simply by regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, we can spend time with God.

Narasimhadeva with Prahlada For the conditioned soul, devotional service represents the start of spiritual life. Those who take it up quickly make it a full-time occupation. Unlike other self-help programs, devotional service is something that is never given up, for it is the eternal occupation of the soul. So why not take up this sublime engagement? It may just turn out to be the last self-help program we ever try.