“The principle of remembering the Supreme Personality of Godhead constantly and not forgetting Him at any moment is meant to be followed by everyone without fail. If this injunction is followed, then all other rules and regulations will automatically fall into line. All other rules and regulations should be treated as assistants or servants to this one basic principle.” (Shrila Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch. 2)
One of the most famous devotees of God, Prahlada Maharaja, once expounded on the nature of devotional service and what activity actually makes up this most sublime of engagements. Questioned by his demoniac father as to what the boy had learned in school, Prahlada replied that the most important thing he learned was that life is about devotional service to God, or bhakti-yoga, and that this service entailed nine distinct processes: hearing, chanting, remembering Lord Vishnu [God], serving His lotus feet, worshiping, offering prayers, becoming God’s servant, becoming friends with the Lord, and surrendering completely unto the Lord. Performing any of these nine processes is enough to secure perfection in life, but remembering is especially important because one can remember the Lord at any and all times. Remembering is not dependent on any other process, and moreover, it forms the backbone of one’s devotional practice.
Why is remembering Krishna, or God, important? The mind is always working. No matter the time or the day, whether we are asleep or awake, the mind is always thinking. And what is it thinking about? Aside from making future plans, the mind is always contemplating matters of the past. In order to dwell on the past, we must remember. Hence it is safe to assume that much of our time is spent in remembrance. Since we spend so much time remembering, naturally our consciousness is affected. According to Vedic doctrine, our consciousness at the time of death determines our fate in the afterlife.
“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.6)
This isn’t some dogma that the Hindus have conjured up. It is a scientific fact that can be easily understood. For example, our consciousness already drives our activities, thus determining our future fortunes and misfortunes. An angry person is always thinking about their hatred for others and their frustration in life. Naturally this anger affects their consciousness to the point where they are driven to perform activities in ignorance. By the same token, a pious person is always thinking about good things to do: charity, teaching, the performance of religious activities, etc. Hence their consciousness is adjusted to the point where they are driven to performing such noble acts. Their minds won’t let them do anything else.
Just as our activities are driven by our consciousness, our consciousness is also developed by our activities. Death represents the cessation of material activity. This distinction is made because death only refers to the outer covering of the soul, the body. The body takes birth and dies, but the soul does not. So how does the soul end up in a material body? This is where consciousness comes into play. At the time of death, our consciousness, which is developed over the course of our lifetime, is measured. It is similar to the idea of a person’s life flashing before their very eyes. The human brain is quite amazing; it can process hundreds of thoughts within the blink of an eye. Our brains are moving so fast that the rest of the body can’t keep up. It is for this reason that many people have trouble writing their thoughts down on paper. By the time they get to actually writing with their pen or typing on their computers, the thoughts have left them. The brain has moved on to another set of ideas. This is why many famous writers actually dictated their ideas into a tape recorder, the transcripts of which later were turned into books. This was the case with the famous radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who dictated both of his two best-selling books. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada also dictated many of his translations and writings. Several of his books are composed entirely of his lectures and conversations.
Since the brain works so fast, it covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. When we fall asleep at night, our mind starts off thinking about one topic, but then quickly jumps from one area to another. The jumping becomes faster and faster to the point where we finally fall asleep since we are unable to keep up. This thinking then continues while we are asleep, i.e. the dreaming process. The mind will continue to work, regardless of any effort on our part. What we can control, however, is the scope of what the mind can contemplate. Simply put, the mind can only contemplate on things that it has experienced. We can only remember events that we have lived through. Keeping these facts in mind, Prahlada Maharaja recommends smaranam, or remembering, as one of the primary methods of spiritual worship.
When we think of religion, or spiritual life, there is usually a negative stigma associated with it. Why is this? Well, we inherently know that religion is something that is to be taken seriously, something which requires discipline and self-control to perfect. Our natural propensity in life is to act in just the opposite way. We are free spirits, so for this definition to be valid, we must act in an uninhibited way. We can’t be shackled up all the time and still claim to be free. The Vedas tell us that this world is governed by an illusory force known as maya. It is due to maya’s influence that we mistakenly take our current material activities to be conducted in freedom. It is also due to the effects of maya that we take spiritual life to be restrictive and something which cramps our style.
Those who are neophytes in the area of theology, or those who don’t really practice any religion, generally view spiritual life as something made up of many dos and don’ts. “Don’t eat meat; don’t take the Lord’s name in vain; go to church every week; don’t have sex until you’re married, etc.” While these regulations are certainly important, they are subordinate to the primary “do” of remembering. This was the point stressed by Prahlada Maharaja. Appearing in a family of demons many millions of years ago, Prahlada was a saintly person from the time of his birth. At only five years of age, he was a mahajana, an authority on Vaishnavism, or devotion to Lord Vishnu. There is only one God and He is for everyone. The Vedas tell us that He has various forms, with Lord Vishnu being one of them. Lord Vishnu is an expansion of Lord Krishna, the original form of God.
At five years of age, Prahlada regularly attended a school taught by his spiritual master. As the son of a king, Prahlada was expected to learn about diplomacy, the art of warfare, and how to perform just enough religious rituals to secure material wealth and prosperity. Prahlada had no interest in these things. When asked by his father what he had learned, Prahlada did not reply with a list of don’ts. He didn’t say, “Father, I learned that one has to abstain from sinful life. I learned that life is all about limiting enjoyment and remaining quiet and silent.” Instead, Prahlada focused only on positive activity. He said that the most important thing in life was to be actively engaged in the Lord’s service.
It must be said that the rules and regulations of religion are certainly important. They exist for a reason. However, simply following these rules is not enough to achieve perfection in life. And what is that perfection? As the soul is eternal, it must also have an abode which it is meant to reside in. We can understand that life on earth cannot be that permanent home based on the fact that this world itself is always changing. We may have grown up in one home in our youth, but as soon as we get older and get married, we buy our own house. Sometimes we are also switching from one job to another, one apartment to another.
Our body can also be thought of as an apartment. The soul resides in one type of dwelling in this life, but at the time of death, it immediately gets transferred to another apartment. As long as the apartment we receive is composed of material elements, the transmigration of the soul will continue. It is not until we get a spiritual apartment, an eternal body composed of bliss and knowledge, that our transmigration ends. So the point of human life, the current life that we are living, is to take the necessary steps to ensure that we go to our spiritual home after death.
The secret to attaining spiritual perfection is consciousness, which is driven by our memories, which are driven by our activities. It is for this reason that we are told to refrain from activities such as drinking, gambling, unrestricted sex life, and the eating of animal flesh. But let’s say that we abstain from these four pillars of sinful life. Is that enough? Surely we will be behaving piously, but does this mean that our consciousness has changed? Even if we give up various types of harmful behavior, if we still engage in fruitive activity with a desire to sin, our consciousness will remain fixed on objects of matter. Matter is subordinate to spirit, and those who are worshipers of matter are guaranteed of getting a material body in the future.
To really change our consciousness, we have to constantly remember God. How do we do this? Luckily for us, the Lord has appeared on earth many many times in the past and enacted wonderful pastimes. These activities have been chronicled in the great texts such as the Ramayana, Bhagavad-gita, and Shrimad Bhagavatam. We simply have to read these texts, or hear about them from devotees, and our consciousness will gradually change. How does this happen? Let’s say, for example, that we read the Ramayana every day. The Ramayana is the life story of Lord Rama, one of Krishna’s chief incarnations who appeared during the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation. Lord Rama’s character was that of a pious prince, someone who never deviated from the righteous path. The point of hearing of Lord Rama’s activities is to always associate with Him. The Ramayana not only allows us to associate with Rama, but with His wife Sita Devi, His younger brother Lakshmana, and His faithful servant Hanuman as well. It is nice to hear about God’s activities, but this doesn’t paint the whole picture. Associating with God is good, but we must remember that we can never become Him. Perfection in life comes by becoming a devotee, so it helps to also hear about the activities of the Lord’s greatest devotees. There will always be comparisons made between the devotees, and debates as to which ones are superior, but one thing we know for sure is that Sita, Lakshmana, and Hanuman are of the highest quality and character. One can never go wrong by hearing of their transcendental activities.
Lord Rama was very pious. He kindly renounced His kingdom in order to maintain the good reputation of His father and His ancestors. The Lord also showed great love and affection for His friends and His wife. Are we supposed to remember Lord Rama’s example, or Lord Rama Himself? We can certainly learn from His pious example, but if we remain stuck on His chivalry, we aren’t deriving the full benefit of the Ramayana. We can be as pious as Rama, but that won’t really get us anywhere in life. Piety is considered part of the mode of goodness, something which provides a temporary return to one’s original consciousness. While this mode is certainly superior to passion and ignorance, it is still nevertheless a material quality, meaning that those who associate with it will have to remain in a material body.
The true benefit of the Ramayana and Shrimad Bhagavatam is that we can associate with God and remember His activities. Remembering is such a critical aspect of spiritual life because it’s so easy to do. It doesn’t matter whether we are young, old, Hindu, Christian, a man, or a woman, we can all remember God’s activities. Hanuman loved to remember Rama’s activities so much that he was granted the benediction of remaining alive for as long as Rama’s story was celebrated on this earth. Who can be a greater authority on devotional service than Hanuman? He showed us the true value of remembering God.
All the great Vaishnava devotees of the past spent much time remembering. It is for this reason that Shrila Rupa Gosvami, in his Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, states that remembering Krishna under all circumstances is the topmost religious practice. Any other practice is simply a spinoff of remembering. Prahlada Maharaja always remembered Lord Vishnu, through weakness and strength, happiness and sorrow. For better or for worse, Prahlada always loved Vishnu, and the Lord kindly reciprocated that love. That is the example for us to follow. Spiritual life is meant to be fun, to secure us the happiness that we so desperately seek. Let us not try to enjoy God’s kingdom without God. Yoga means linking the soul with God, and by always remembering the Lord, that link can always remain strong.