“How can that female swan who is accustomed to sporting with the king of swans amidst lotus flowers ever cast her eyes on a water-crow that stays amidst bunches of grass?” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.20)
Those who are unfamiliar with Vedic customs find it hard to believe that someone can live without eating meat or drinking alcohol. What’s even more surprising is that people who grow up in America and other countries around the world which don’t have a steeped tradition of Vedic culture can also give up these bad habits. The secret to this renunciation is attachment, the development of a higher taste. Vishnu devotees have found something that gives them thrills and highs that far surpass the temporary feelings of happiness derived from engagement in sinful activities such as drinking and taking drugs. This ananda, or bliss, can only be achieved through association with the Supreme Lord.
Devotees of Lord Vishnu are known as Vaishnavas. There is only one God, regardless of what anyone else may claim. God cannot be the exclusive property of any one group of people; He exists, and His dominion is over all of mankind. The Vedas, the oldest scriptures in existence, are unique in that they go beyond just telling us that there is a God; they give us details about what He looks like, what activities He performs, and what His names are. The Vedas tell us that the original form of God is that of Lord Shri Krishna. He is also known as Bhagavan, meaning the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Godhead is a more accurate description for God because it speaks to the fact that God can take many forms. Krishna is the fountainhead of all these forms, thus He is known as the Supreme Godhead. Krishna’s immediate expansion is that of Lord Vishnu, who has four hands and lives in the Vaikuntha spiritual planets.
Since there is essentially no difference between Vishnu and Krishna, devotees of either or both are referred to as Vaishnavas. A key distinction between an untrained theist and a Vaishnava is that a devotee of Vishnu voluntarily gives up what are known as the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. One may wonder what these activities have to do with God. After all, isn’t it enough to just believe in God? The reason these activities are deemed sinful is that they cause one to be bound up in the illusion of this material world. Illusion means taking something to be one thing when, in reality, it is something else. The world we live in is deemed to be illusory because it makes us think that we will be happy associating with it.
Material happiness is an illusion because matter itself is constantly changing, being subject to creation, maintenance, and dissolution. Sex life which is against religious principles serves as a great example in illustrating this point. When men and women reach a mature age, they seek out each other’s company. Men look for certain traits in a woman, and women have their own set of qualities they look for in a man, but a commonality exists in that both groups look for beauty. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there is no denying that beauty is often related to a person’s outward features. These features consist of matter, for that is what the gross body is comprised of. The body is constantly changing: from boyhood to youth, from youth to adult, from adult to old age. Though the body constantly changes, the identity of the owner of the body doesn’t. This is because the spirit soul residing within the body is what determines a person’s identity; it forms the essence of existence. The outward covering is simply a dress, something which gets worn out over time.
As the body gets older, it becomes less attractive to the opposite sex. The same woman we were attracted to in our youth, now becomes less attractive in old age. So the driving force behind sex life, material beauty, can be considered an illusion, for it is ever changing. This is one small example of how material happiness works, and the same principles can be applied to gambling, intoxication, and meat eating. This is all by design, though, for the material world is not meant to be our permanent home. Since spirit is superior to matter, there is another world where spirit reigns supreme. That place is known as the spiritual world, where God and His eternal associates dwell. Unlike the material world, everything in Krishna’s realm is blissful, permanent, and full of knowledge. What we see is what we get, so there is no illusion.
Returning to the spiritual world is actually quite easy. We simply have to have a sincere desire to associate with God. If this desire remains with us at the time of death, in our next life we receive a spiritual body. If we assume a spiritual body, naturally we will live in the spiritual world. Krishna’s promise to us is that once we assume a spiritual body, we will never be subject to the forces of the material world again. This means that our days of being tricked by material nature will be over.
So this seems simple enough; just desire to be with God. Here’s the catch though. In our current conditioned state, we have a tight attachment to sinful activity. This attachment is not very easy to give up. Even if we want to be with God, if we still have an addiction to any sinful activity, we will be forced to accept another material body at the time of death. To help us remain on the virtuous path, the great Vaishnava saints recommend that we kick our addiction to the above mentioned pillars of sinful life. No meat eating, no gambling, no intoxication, and no illicit sex.
For people growing up in Western countries, even giving up one of these activities is difficult. There is a well-known historical incident involving of one Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s preachers going to England and trying to convert famous dignitaries into devotees of Krishna. A high ranking government official in England asked the preacher how he could go about becoming a brahmana, or high class priest. “Can you make me a brahmana?” the person asked. The preacher replied that it would be very simple, that the person would only need to give up the four primary sinful activities. Immediately this dignitary replied that it was impossible. “Give up drinking? Give up meat-eating? No way; I can’t do it.”
This sentiment is echoed by many people who live in countries which have a rooted tradition of meat eating and intoxication. “If we give up these activities, what will we do for fun? What will we eat?” These are certainly valid concerns, which luckily have been addressed by the great devotees of Krishna. The acharyas tell us that more than simply giving up activities, we need to take up a full-time engagement which will make us automatically give up all bad habits. This engagement is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. The primary component of devotional service is chanting. If we regularly recite God’s names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, we will slowly develop an attachment to God.
How do we develop an attachment to somebody we can’t even see? The secret lies in the fact that God and His names are identical. This is a little tricky to understand at first, but it is undoubtedly true. Being the Supreme Absolute Truth, there is no difference between Krishna and any of His primary expansions. This means that Krishna’s original form, His arms, legs, names, and books that describe Him are all equal, for that is the very definition of Absolute. Chanting is the recommended process of devotional service for this age because it is the easiest and most effective method of connecting with God. Along with performing other activities such as hearing, remembering, and offering prayers, a person can spend twenty-four hours a day engaged in Krishna’s service.
Associating with Krishna by these methods is in some ways better than offering service to Him face-to-face. This is because if we hear about Krishna or chant His name, many of our inhibitions are removed. Our love for Him is free to grow, and it doesn’t get checked by any social conventions or self-consciousness. We are free to love the Lord unconditionally, without any expectation of reciprocation.
As a result of associating with God, one automatically loses tastes for other subordinate activities. If a person regularly engages in devotional service, they no longer desire to associate with illusory matter, something which provides no lasting pleasure. This essentially describes the life of a sannyasi, or one in the renounced order. Sannyasis renounce material life, dedicating their whole lives to serving Krishna. Usually the idea of sannyasa is equated with shaving one’s head, carrying around a stick, and travelling from place to place. These things certainly do help one remain renounced, but sannyasa is more a state of mind than anything else. By dedicating their lives to Krishna, sincere devotees find a higher taste, something which gives them a million times more pleasure than anything they ever did before. In this way, we see that sannyasa is more about pleasure than it is renunciation.
Due to His causeless mercy upon the fallen conditioned living entities, Krishna descends to earth in a spiritual form from time to time. He enacts pastimes, punishes the miscreants, and gives pleasure and protection to the Vaishnavas. One such appearance took place many thousands of years ago in the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation. Appearing on earth as Lord Rama, the handsome and pious prince of Ayodhya, God’s mission was to kill the Rakshasa demon Ravana. In order to facilitate Ravana’s destruction, Rama needed an excuse to take him on in battle. This excuse came through the kidnapping of Sita Devi, Lord Rama’s wife, by Ravana.
Taking Sita back to his island kingdom of Lanka, Ravana tried his best to win her over, but he was unsuccessful. In response to his advances, Sita scornfully rebuked him and let him know just what was in store for him as a result of his horrible act. In the above referenced statement, Sita is asking Ravana a rhetorical question relating to her love for Rama. She compares Rama to the greatest swan [raja-hamsena] that lives with its consort amongst lotus flowers and Ravana to an ordinary diver-bird who rustles around in reeds and grass. This beautiful analogy also describes the difference between spiritual life and material life.
Sita is saying that she has already tasted pure bliss through association with God. She was more than just an associate; she was God’s wife, His eternal consort. Sita and Rama can never be separated at any time. Even though Ravana kidnapped her, he was only able to touch and see a material version of Sita. The sinful and the materially conditioned can never see God and His pure devotees for who they truly are. This flawed mindset leads them to view the deities in temples as ordinary wood or stone statues.
Ravana was a gross materialist who took the satisfaction of the senses to be his topmost priority. He lived in beautiful palaces, had a tremendous fighting army of Rakshasas at his disposal, and was married to hundreds of beautiful princesses. Yet all this was not enough; lust drove him to forcibly take another man’s wife. Actually, material life is never enough for any person, not just Ravana. This is why religion exists; it is our way out of this ocean of nescience. Due to Ravana’s sinful nature, Sita wanted nothing to do with him. More than just not wanting to be with him, there was simply no way for Sita to ever associate with Ravana. In thought, word, and deed, Sita was wholly dedicated to Lord Rama.
Having found a higher taste, Sita could not tolerate the mundane enjoyment provided by matter. Her statement also shows that she had completely renounced material life, something which is not common for women. The sannyasa-ashrama, as well as the entire varnashrama- dharma system, is intended primarily for men. A woman’s dharma is that she should be dedicated to her husband, and thereby share in the results of his pious activities. Sita, being a pure devotee, transcended all these rules and regulations. This proves that any person, regardless of their race, gender, or ethnicity, can take to devotional service and achieve perfection in life. Being madly in love with God is the true sign of one in the renounced order. The lesson here is that we can easily renounce all sinful activity simply by accepting a higher taste, the sweet transcendental mellow of pure loving association with the Supreme Personality of Godhead.