“A conditioned soul cannot deliver another conditioned soul. Only Krishna or His bona fide representative can deliver him.” (King Prithu, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 9)
Most of us are familiar with the term “the blind leading the blind.” This refers to a person who has no vision directing others on where to go. The people that are lost are considered blind in the sense that they cannot see the light, the true path in life. When they ask for help, directions to the supreme destination, they are led astray by someone who is also blind. In order to find the proper path, we must seek out someone who has eyes, a vision which allows them to see things as they are. The Vedas tell us that only God possesses this vision and that He is kind enough to grant these spiritual eyes to His faithful adherents, the bona fide spiritual masters.
Political campaigns always make for an interesting study. Especially in races involving an incumbent, the political fodder gives us insight into how the human mind works. For example, say we have an important election where a challenger is running against an incumbent, an officeholder who has an established record. It is one thing to run for office as a newbie, someone who has no experience. These campaigns are easier to run because you can just make lofty promises. “I will do this; I will do that; I am for hope and change; I will do things smarter and I will do them better.” The incumbents have a little tougher time in coming up with a campaign strategy. This is because they have an established record that opponents can pick apart.
For the challenger, the aim is to portray as negative a picture as possible about the incumbent and the current circumstances. Most challengers run simply off of cause and effect. “Look at how things were four years ago and look at how they are now. Are you happier? Are you better off? If not, then who is to blame? Obviously, the incumbent has led to this dire predicament.” One of the more commonly invoked metaphors is that of a person driving a car into a ditch. The challenger will say that the incumbent drove the country, city, or state into a ditch. They will then follow up with this rhetorical question: “Now that we are in the ditch, how are we going to get out? Are we going to ask the person who got us into this mess to help us out, or are we going to try a new approach?”
In addition to being clever political word jugglery, this is an apt characterization for how many of us handle our problems. When we are unhappy or need guidance in a particular situation, do we seek out those who have been successful, or do we seek out those who are themselves flawed? Judging by the experts that are highlighted on television, we can see that most of the guidance we receive comes from flawed individuals. They have experts for just about every field nowadays. There is an expert on foreign policy, an expert on economics, and an expert on diet and nutrition. Have these people ever run a business, dealt with foreign leaders, or followed a diet plan themselves? Most of them have not. They get branded with the title of “expert” based on their academic scholarship. They either have lofty degrees or they belong to special interest groups. In this way, we see that they themselves don’t have any practical knowledge of the subjects they claim to be experts on.
There is the famous adage which states that “those who can’t do, teach.” There is certainly some credence to this, but it doesn’t mean that the successful teachers don’t know how to do. For example, a good tennis instructor knows how to hit the ball properly and how to prepare for shots. Though they may not have the athletic ability of a professional tennis player, they are still capable of acting out on their instructions. If we want to be successful in any venture, we have to seek out those who have previously achieved success. There is no point to getting help from failures, for no one needs to be taught how to fail. When you walk into a bookstore or library, you won’t find a section which has books on how to fail. On the contrary, the shelves are filled with self-help books which teach people how to be successful in all areas of life.
To be successful in spiritual life, we must seek out the help of those who are liberated. A conditioned soul cannot rescue another conditioned soul. What do we mean by conditioned? The Vedas tell us that spirituality is more important than material life. Spirituality involves connecting with the spirit soul inside of us, the basis of our identity. When you mix spirit with matter, you get conditioned life. A conditioned soul is someone who does not have any freedom, someone who is forced to reside within a body. By default, this description applies to all of us. Though we have vague memories of our childhood, we never had a choice as to where and when we took birth. Since we had no choice in the matter of birth or death, we must be conditioned. If we do have control over whether birth or death takes place, then we can be considered liberated.
“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.16)
How can any person control birth or death? Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, kindly informs us that as individual souls, we transmigrate from one material body to another. In this sense, we are conditioned, bound to the wheel of material existence, samsara-chakra. The liberated soul, however, no longer has to suffer through birth, death, old age, or disease. A soul which achieves liberation while residing in this world is known as jivan-mukta, someone who transcends the effects of matter while remaining in their body. At the time of death, the liberated souls are taken directly to Krishna’s spiritual realm, whence from they never have to return. In this way, they put a stop to reincarnation.
So how does one become liberated? The key is to approach someone who is already liberated and learn the art from them. When we approach a conditioned person, as well-meaning as they may be, they will give us prescriptions that aim to further our material condition. They are conditioned souls after all, so what else would they have to offer us? But the liberated souls have nothing to do with matter. They are pure servants of the Supreme Lord; hence they dovetail all of their activities with Him. Doing a quick compare and contrast can help us better understand the difference between a conditioned soul and a liberated one. A conditioned person always jumps between accepting and rejecting. This thinking is represented in terms of “I like” and “I don’t like”. For example, I may join a gym one day and decide that I will dedicate myself to exercising. In this way, I like the gym. After a while though, exercise loses its thrill. Driving to the gym everyday and doing the same exercises gets to be boring, so I decide to quit the gym and never return. My like turns into a dislike.
This liking and disliking goes on all the time. The Vedas refer to this as bhoga/tyaga, enjoying and rejecting. The reason for this fluctuation is that the things we are enjoying are related to matter. Matter is mutable, so it constantly changes. Since it is inferior in nature, the enjoyment derived from it is also subpar. The liberated souls transcend bhoga/tyaga because they aim to satisfy the master of the senses, Hrishikesha. We may have our own senses that we aim to satisfy, but God owns all of the senses. True happiness can only come through service to Him.
What are the prescriptions given by the liberated souls? In this age, the primary recommendation is that we should constantly engage in Krishna’s service. This discipline is known as bhakti-yoga, and its primary component is the regular chanting of God’s names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. We shouldn’t mistakenly take bhakti-yoga to be a passing fad or a part-time activity. The liberated souls are free from conditioned life because they spend all their time working for Krishna. Obviously this is a very high level of devotion which can’t be achieved overnight, but the desire to reach this end must be there. The reason that chanting is the foremost spiritual practice is that it can be performed anywhere and at any time of the day. Moreover, there is no time limit to this chanting. We can take up the various gymnastics exercises that are part of hatha-yoga, but after half an hour we’ll get tired and move on to something else.
Bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is meant to take up all of our time. The key is to always be conscious of God, no matter what we are doing. This is the difference between bhoga/tyaga and bhakti. Bhakti also brings about enjoyment and involves things that we like to do, but the difference is in the area of consciousness. With bhoga, we think of ourselves as the lord and master, and the same with tyaga. Many people take great pride in their renunciation capabilities. “I can go without eating anything for days; I only sleep four hours a day; I don’t eat meat”, etc. These things are certainly very nice, but our renunciation must have a purpose, otherwise the false ego kicks in and we start taking ourselves to be the masters of everything.
Bhakti-yoga involves service. We can’t see God in our conditioned state, so we are advised to consult with those who can. Our first business is to serve the eternally liberated soul, the spiritual master. How do we tell who is a bona fide spiritual master? Aside from being liberated, the spiritual master is a pure devotee of Krishna. What does it mean to be a pure devotee? This is actually quite easy to figure out. To gauge whether or not someone is a devotee, simply ask yourself what their aim in life is. What is the driving force behind that person’s activities? If the answer to these questions is love for Krishna, then you know the person is a devotee. A spiritual master may rub us the wrong way from time to time, saying things that offend us, but if their intention is to make Krishna happy, then we must take them to be liberated.
The liberated souls are so kind that they don’t want to hog the glory for themselves. Their business is to make other people liberated as well. In this way, they are the greatest freedom fighters, helping the distraught living entities out of the ditch. A spiritual master that all of us can approach is His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He lives forever through His countless books and recorded lectures. We should all make good use of these resources and fix ourselves up to the highest position.