Friday, June 25, 2010

Driven by Purpose

Valmiki teaching Lava and Kusha “It is ignorance of death and life that distinguishes an animal from a man. A man, in the real sense of the term, inquires about himself and what he is. Wherefrom has he come into this life, and where is he going after death?” (Shrila Prabhupada, Science of Self-Realization, Ch 1f)

When trying to explain spiritual life to others, devotees commonly invoke analogies to the animal kingdom. These comparisons are valid because the animal species are very similar to human beings. They go through similar life cycles and also engage in many of the same activities. It is for this reason that enlightened transcendentalists often point to the four primary activities of animals: eating, sleeping, mating, and defending, and how human beings should rise above these activities. Animals are vastly inferior in the intelligence department to human beings, so it would be wise for humans to avoid imitating base animalistic tendencies. Yet there are still many who believe that animals don’t have souls and that this fact alone makes the comparison to human beings a faulty one. Even though this premise of animals not having souls is itself flawed, we can still prove the same point, i.e. the need for human beings to rise above animal-like activities, by studying human behavior.

Movie camera Taking animals completely out of the equation, let us closely examine what we human beings feel is praiseworthy activity. How do we determine what the general public views as laudable activity? This is quite easy actually, for we simply need to study the lives of those who are famous, i.e. those who garner much attention and praise from the people at large. The most famous people in any country are usually the movie stars. What are actors good at? They have the talent to stand in front of a camera and recite rehearsed words with the proper timing, expression, tone, and mood. They are also able to act out scenes perfectly with other actors, working on body movements, facial expressions, and sometimes even perfecting difficult physical exercises. It certainly requires great talent to be a good actor, for most of us would get nervous if a camera was placed in front of us. Acting in movies is one thing, but theatre actors, and those who take part in live tapings of television shows, have an even tougher job. They don’t have the luxury of screwing up. These actors certainly make mistakes from time to time, but at the cost of having everyone in the audience witness the transgression. As a reward for their great talent, actors enjoy tremendous popularity. This is especially true of actors who star in popular movies. They become so famous that fans and paparazzi follow their every move, keeping track of who they are dating and what restaurants they visit.

Baseball Aside from actors, there are others who also enjoy great fame and notoriety. Star athletes are praised for their ability to perform under pressure. As a result of their unique talents, athletes in professional sports usually earn a high salary. Sometimes people will have a kneejerk reaction to this, especially when it comes to athletes who play popular sports like baseball. “Oh they are too greedy. They play a game for a living. I would do it for free.” In reality, no one could play professional baseball for free due simply to the fact that no one would pay money to see unskilled players. If you took any odd person off the street and put them at the plate in front of a big league pitcher, they would most certainly strike out every time. It takes great skill to be able to react to a 100 mph pitch thrown at you. Professional baseball players not only have to hit these kinds of pitches, but they have to decide whether or not to swing at them, all in less than a second’s time. Moreover, making it to the major leagues requires great perseverance and skill. More than anything else, baseball is a business, meaning that team owners are primarily interested in turning a profit; hence they only want the best baseball players on their team. Since teams are seeking only the most skilled athletes, competition to make the big leagues becomes fierce. Those who do successfully make it to the major leagues and perform well certainly will be well compensated.

Being a star athlete or movie star is not a very common profession, so the praise these celebrities receive is justifiable. Yet there are still those who excel in other fields who also garner great attention. Successful businessman, politicians, and even philanthropists are lauded for their skill and accomplishments. The reason these people are praised is because they are seen to have had a successful life. In general, most of us believe that success in life comes through the acquisition of material possessions, i.e. money. “Go to school, get into a good college, and then land a high paying job. Start your own business if you can, for you will make even more money and not have to answer to a boss.” This is seen as a successful life. Those who are able to live out this dream are viewed as intelligent and well-off.

Whether a person is great at acting, playing baseball, or even inventing a new computer, the one thing they have in common is that they are expert at action. They are praised for what they do, and not necessarily for what they have or how they behave in their free time. For the successful and talented, the praise thrown their way has nothing to do with animal life. As mentioned before, the core of animal life involves searching for food, taking rest, having sexual relations, and properly defending one’s accumulated possessions. But when we look at the “ideal” person in the material paradigm, we see that they are not praised for their animalistic activities, but rather for their intelligence; pursuits and activities which rise above those of the common man.

Just by studying this phenomenon, we see that the majority of us already understand that life isn’t all about eating and sleeping. If this is so, can achieving material success be the ultimate aim of life? Is the reason for our being put on this earth the pursuit of material perfection; be it starring in a hit movie, running a successful business, or being the best athlete in the world? The answer is no. Though we praise people for their material activities and achievements, the ultimate aim of life cannot be met solely through these activities.

Money To understand why this is so, let us examine the results of the activities performed by the rich and famous. Thus far we have established the fact that the materially successful are intelligent due to the fact that they don’t primarily involve themselves in the four animalistic activities. But what is the result of their material activity? What is the result of starring in a hit movie or running a successful business? Usually these perfections equate to more money. Once our bank balance becomes large enough, what do we spend our newfound wealth on? More material possessions, of course. We buy a nicer house, with wonderful furniture, luxurious mattresses, and a big back yard. We also spend more time eating out and throwing lavish parties. The rich and famous are known for travelling in style, with many of them owning their own private jets. Their houses are so luxurious that journalists and other media people visit these homes and describe the accommodations to others.

So if we get down to brass tacks, we see that success in material activities results in higher quality sleeping, eating, mating, and defending. The rich have nice living arrangements, wonderful food, beautiful wives, and top-of-the-line home security systems. Many celebrities even have their own security detail, which keep the mobs of fans and press at a safe distance. So even though the successful can be praised for their extraordinary talents, we see that the end-result is increased enjoyment in animal life. The successful might spend more time in fruitive activity than the lazy and unmotivated, but more or less, the enjoyment derived is of the same nature. One person may sleep on a floor while another sleeps on a cushy mattress, but the actual enjoyment from sleep doesn’t really vary. Once we are asleep, we all forget where we are and what we are sleeping on.

Lord Krishna So if even material success results in a return to animal life, what activities should we take up? Who should we look to as role models? What is the purpose of our existence? The Vedas tell us that the four activities of animal life are inferior in nature because they only seek to satisfy the demands of the gross senses. Though the senses enable us to interact with nature, they don’t represent our true identity. The gross senses are part of the gross body; a body which is subject to creation and destruction. The spirit soul, or atma, is what represents our true identity. The soul can never take birth nor can it die.

“Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.17)

Though the soul is eternal, it can become embodied. This is the current predicament we find ourselves in. Our soul is stuck inside a material body which is prone to acting according to the dictates of the senses. If we only focus on meeting these demands, which are animalistic in nature, the senses may give us some temporary relief, but new demands will quickly rise up again. If we still have sense demands at the time of death, the soul is again placed into a material body in the next life. The cycle continues until we are able to break free of our attachment to sense gratification.

The people who are deserving of the highest praise are those who have transcended the animalistic tendencies of the body. Intelligent activity is not represented by the pursuit of material perfections or possessions. Intelligent activity is anything which results in the betterment of the soul. Those who perform actions which yield results that transcend the base demands of the senses are worthy of the highest praise. The Vedas tell us that the only people in life who meet these requirements are the devotees of Lord Krishna, or God.

A devotee is someone who engages in devotional service, or bhakti-yoga. Bhakti means love or devotion, and yoga means linking the soul with God. Devotional service is that discipline which helps us rekindle our loving relationship with the Supreme Lord. Devotional service is a way of life; something which we perform twenty-four hours a day. Though the discipline can comprise of many activities, there is one that yields the quickest and longest lasting benefits. Above all other processes, simply chanting the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, can take one to the transcendental platform immediately.

Lord Chaitanya and associates So how do devotees transcend animal life? Since devotees spend all their time engaged in serving the Supreme Lord, they automatically become detached from the needs of the senses. Devotees certainly eat, sleep, defend, etc., but their involvement in these activities is limited. For example, bhakti-yogis eat only vegetarian food which is first offered to Krishna. This food is known as prasadam, meaning the Lord’s mercy. Devotees avoid the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. People unfamiliar with Vedic teachings, upon first hearing of these restrictions, will find them impossible to adhere to. They will immediately associate devotional life with restrictions on diet and alcohol consumption. Ironically enough, most devotees don’t even realize they are vegetarian or that they don’t drink alcohol. Maybe in the beginning stages these things are difficult to give up, but after regularly practicing bhakti-yoga, a person completely forgets about these restrictions. It becomes a part of their way of life.

The lesson here is that we already inherently understand that animal activity is not the ultimate aim of life. We don’t praise people for being able to sleep for long periods of time or for being voracious eaters, aside from maybe the winners of hot dog eating contests. It is due to the illusory forces of maya that we currently laud activity which ultimately results in increased association with animal life. In order to truly transcend attachment to eating, sleeping, mating, and defending, one has to take to devotional service. Only through association with the supreme spirit, Lord Krishna, can we nullify the effects of matter and the senses. This association will deliver us liberation from the cycle of birth and death and a return trip back home, back to Godhead.