“Bind or destroy this body of mine, which is deprived of feelings [due to separation from Rama]. O Rakshasa, I will not protect this body or even my life.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.21)
The central teaching of the Vedas is that we are not our bodies. The spirit soul residing within represents both our true identity and the basis of our life. The Vedas also tell us that this soul is similar in quality to God, for it is meant to always be blissful and full of knowledge. Knowing this, one may wonder what the purpose to life is. Why are we forced to remain inside of a body which is destined for destruction? If we all die eventually, why do we even take birth? Why do we have arms, hands, legs, and a brain? Moreover, why should we work so hard to maintain the body, which is essentially just a shell that gets burned or buried at the end of life?
To answer these questions, let’s first analyze how most conditioned living entities view the body. By default, we are all born into ignorance. This is true for every living entity, and it is evidenced by the fact that an infant cannot do anything for itself except cry. At one time we were all babies who were completely dependent on our parents for everything. All the knowledge that we possess today had to be acquired over many years of trials, tribulations, and schooling. Through knowledge and intelligence we slowly but surely rose above the natural animalistic tendencies that we inherited at the time of birth.
As we grow older, most of us are taught to become self-sufficient individuals. Do well in school, get a good job, be responsible, and raise a family. This is the ideal existence, for if we are able to maintain ourselves and our families, a lot of our worries get eliminated. In a spiritual sense, however, this sort of life is still considered conditioned, meaning it has no influence on the soul. A living entity can be considered conditioned if it has no knowledge about the soul and its relationship to God. The quintessential trait of a conditioned person is that they identify solely with their body. This identification then leads them to think that the aim of life is to meet the sense demands of the body to the fullest degree.
What are sense demands? They can be thought of as anything relating to the four primary activities of animals: eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. We all want to feel pleasure by performing activities that make us happy. Eat nice food, have a beautiful spouse, travel to nice places, hang out with our friends, etc. This sort of life certainly provides some level of sense pleasure, but it is very difficult to maintain. For those who have, there is always anxiety in maintaining their possessions. In today’s world, the economic condition is an ever-changing one, with new industries forming and dissolving every day. One hundred years ago, almost half of the population of America engaged in agriculture as their main business. That number is now drastically diminished, yet the food production is as high as it has ever been. All those farmers didn’t become homeless, but rather, they found new ways to earn money. In a similar manner, the IT boom of the last twenty years has created a whole new industry of jobs. People now are becoming computer specialists instead of joining other fields.
All this change means that sustaining a quiet and peaceful family life is not as easy as it used to be. Simply to meet the basic demands of the senses, we must go through so much trouble. The Vedas tell us that there is certainly nothing wrong with working hard to maintain our lives, but at the same time, we should realize that the pleasure derived from this way of life is temporary and fleeting in nature. In reality we don’t have to work that hard to gratify our senses. To illustrate this example, we need only look to the animal community. An animal, such as a dog or a cat, certainly eats, sleeps, mates, and defends just like humans do, except that they don’t hanker or lament. They don’t worry about a mortgage payment, or how they will maintain their wife and children. This is because animals don’t have the intelligence to understand those things. They simply act to satisfy their senses, and they don’t necessarily worry about the quality of their enjoyment. Human beings may sleep on comfortable mattresses, while dogs sleep on the floor, but the enjoyment derived isn’t much different. Sleep is sleep in the end.
Human beings have a higher level of intelligence for a reason. We are not meant to imitate the animal kingdom. Our arms, legs, and brain are supposed to be used for a higher purpose. To understand what that purpose is, we must first understand what defines our existence. What is that one thing that sustains us? The Vedas tell us that it is dharma. Dharma is sometimes translated to mean religion, religiosity, or virtue, but in reality, it is something that truly defines one’s existence, an occupational duty that never changes. Religion means a kind of faith, something we change at the drop of a hat. One person believes in Christianity, while another believes in Hinduism, while another jumps from one to the other. Dharma is not like that. It is something that is always in existence. For this reason the Vedas refer to religion as sanatana-dharma, meaning the eternal occupational duty of man.
So dharma defines us, but what does that actually mean? Our occupational duties are always in existence, but what do these duties entail? In a nutshell, our dharma is to always remain connected with God, for that is our original constitutional position. The body is merely a temporary covering for the spirit soul that resides within. The soul has transcendental qualities, the foremost of which is attachment for the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna. Krishna is God, the same God that everyone looks up to and sometimes chastises. We are minute spirit souls, but God is the complete soul, the most superior person, or purusha. Our eternal occupational duty is to always serve Him in a loving way.
If our eternal duty is to serve God, why are we placed in a world where we are allowed to forget Him? Why do we take on the characteristics of animals at the time of birth? This material world is a type of prison house, a place for wayward spirit souls to go to try to act out their desires to imitate God. The Lord is very kind after all, so anyone that doesn’t want to abide by dharma is not forced to. The Lord is so kind to the deviant souls that He created this phantasmagoria known as the material universe to allow them to come and play.
The soul can be thought of as the actor, the body as the machine or set of instruments, and the creation as the playing field. We have total freedom in how we choose to act, though we have limited abilities to actually affect the outcomes of our actions. This is because every other living entity has an equal right to perform their own fruitive activities. As a result there are bound to be collisions. This complicated system of reward and punishment is all managed by God through His agents known as the demigods. So in this regard, we really have no control over our material fortunes and misfortunes.
The only way out of this temporary prison house is dharma. Abiding by dharma is very easy; we simply have to dovetail all our activities with God’s service. Dharma means pleasing God. How do we go about doing this? There is a term that more accurately describes the nature of our occupational duties: bhagavata-dharma. Bhagavata-dharma means devotional service, or those duties which are aimed at pleasing Bhagavan, or Bhagavata. Krishna, or God, is known as Bhagavan because He possesses all fortunes. Anything directly associated with Bhagavan is known as Bhagavata. Bhagavata can refer to books about God or to devotees who serve Him. In this way, bhagavata-dharma, or being always engaged in God’s service, can be thought of as the highest duty in life.
As outlined by the great bhakta, Prahlada Maharaja, devotional service consists of nine distinct activities: hearing, chanting, remembering, worshiping, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering prayers, becoming His servant, becoming friends with the Lord, and surrendering everything unto Him. As we can see, this affords us many avenues which we can go down as it relates to serving God. Those who engage in bhagavata-dharma are making the most out of their lives. Instead of seeing the body as a source of distress and misery, devotees take full advantage of their hands, legs, mouth, and brain to glorify God, chant His name, and talk about Him with others.
A great example of a person who perfected all nine of these processes was Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama. Though Krishna is the fountainhead of all forms of God, He kindly takes many different direct expansions for the enactment of various pastimes. One such expansion appeared on earth many thousands of years ago. Known by the name of Rama, Krishna played the role of a pious prince, wholly dedicated to the welfare of the pious. Naturally, Rama’s wife was equally as pious, for God can never associate with non-liberated souls. Matter is inferior to spirit, so much so that God can never directly associate with matter. When He appears on earth, His body is completely spiritual, and so are all the people He becomes friends with or marries.
Sita Devi based her identity on her devotion to Rama. In this way she showed the proper way for a wife to behave towards her husband. The Vedas tell us that a marriage is a fifty-fifty partnership, with each person assigned separate tasks which they must perform with dedication. The husband is assigned with the task of providing protection and the wife with the duty of serving the husband at all times. These duties were heightened in Sita and Rama’s relationship, for Rama was God Himself, and Sita was a pure devotee. The devotees take it upon themselves to always act in God’s interests, and the Supreme Lord takes charge of protecting them. In this way we see how the loving relationship between God and His devotees operates.
Lord Rama’s duties required Him to take on a famous demon of the time, the ten-headed Ravana. The demigods were living in fear of Ravana because he had acquired great fighting ability. Being a committed atheist, Ravana wanted to rule the world, and he thought he could do so by doing away with the devatas. Lord Rama, being God Himself, easily could have just gone to Ravana’s kingdom of Lanka and killed Him, but the Lord wanted to abide by the proper code of conduct assigned to the kshatriya, or warrior, division. This protocol stipulated that Rama couldn’t take Ravana on in battle unless He was provoked. Lord Rama got the excuse He needed when, while residing in the forest of Dandaka, Sita was kidnapped by Ravana.
Hearing of Sita’s beauty, Ravana’s heart became set on having her. Sadly for him, Sita’s heart belonged to Rama. She was incapable of even thinking of another man. In the above referenced statement, Sita is telling Ravana to go ahead and do what he wants with her body, for she is ready to renounce it. Being held captive in Ravana’s kingdom, Sita was unable to perform devotional service, so she deemed her body to be useless. This is the sign of the highest level of intelligence. Sita had no desire to use her body to satisfy animal instincts. If she couldn’t serve Rama, she had no desire to live.
The lesson here is that we should take the necessary actions to ensure that we can always perform devotional service. Our lifestyle should be adjusted in such a way to eliminate as many hindrances to our devotional activities. The four biggest obstacles towards advancing in spiritual life are the sinful activities of meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. Eliminating these activities and simultaneously taking up the regular chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, is the formula for success. We don’t need to reject everything as being material. Rather, we should judge every activity through the prism of devotional service. “Will such and such activity help me in my devotional life, or will it hurt me?” Thinking along these lines, we can make the most of this wonderful opportunity of human life. If we fail to act according to dharma, none of our activities can be considered worthwhile.