Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nothing Lasts Forever

Lakshmana “My Lord, if, through Your effulgence, You set the entire planet ablaze and put it into a distressful situation, where will the distressed citizens go, O tiger among men, for solace? This [having to deal with temporary setbacks] is certainly characteristic of this world. Even King Yayati, the son of Nahusha, after ascending to the heavenly planets of Indra was touched with inauspiciousness.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.7-8)

This is a nice explanation given by Shri Lakshmana on the temporary nature of God’s inferior energy. Whatever material rewards we receive in life, we can be sure that they won’t last forever. We are also guaranteed to come upon hard times again in some form or another. Even if we receive the highest material benefit of ascension to the heavenly planets, we still run the risk of falling back down to earth, as was the case with the great King Yayati. Keeping these facts in mind, the wise take it upon themselves to associate exclusively with God’s superior energy.

“What goes up, must come down” is how the famous saying goes. Nothing lasts forever. In the course of our day-to-day lives, there are times when we are very happy and times when we are very sad. Sometimes this change in mood can happen in an instant. By repeatedly going through such mood swings day after day for many years, the pattern becomes easier to recognize. Realizing this, we may start to wonder if it’s really a good idea to get too caught up in either extreme; the highs or the lows. The news, friends, work, family, birth, old age, disease, etc; these things all come and go on their own. It is not wise to get too overly attached to anything which is transient.

Masters Golf This is easier said than done however. The world of sports does a good job of illustrating the reality of the temporary nature of highs and lows. Each year there are certain sporting events that are eagerly anticipated: the Masters Golf tournament, Wimbledon for tennis fans, and the Super Bowl for football fans. There is much hype surrounding each of these events, with media doing wall-to-wall coverage before and after. The drama of these events can be quite gripping too. If the Wimbledon Final goes to a fifth set, or if the final round of the Masters goes into sudden death playoff holes, fans remain on the edge of their seats. Finally a victor emerges, and fans either rejoice or despair.

Wimbledon 2007 Let’s fast forward one year after this exciting moment. Does anyone think about who won the tournament the previous year? Some certainly do, especially those fans of the previous year’s winner. Yet once the next tournament starts, the drama begins anew. The previous year’s memories are erased, if not completely, but at least partially. Even if fans reminisce of years past, they can never recapture the same feeling of excitement that existed when the event was actually taking place. For the tournaments we are watching today, the events we are so caught up in that are presently unfolding, the thrills resulting from these experiences will expire very quickly. In tennis and golf, there are four major tournaments each year. This means that as soon as the next major tournament begins, the events of the immediately preceding tournament are forgotten.

This same principle holds true with everything in this material world. Government elections also illustrate this principle. As soon as a new candidate is elected to office, there immediately begins a rush of rumors as to who will run in the next election. The news cycle changes so quickly that no one would dare think of reading a newspaper that is more than one day old. Noticing all of these patterns, the wise realize that there is no need to get overly worked up over victories and defeats, pains and pleasures, or good times and bad times. God’s inferior energy is temporary in nature, so these dualities are bound to exist.

Does this mean that we should just give up all our activities? After all, if we work hard for something, we see that the resulting pleasure doesn’t last very long. The correct approach is to break free of our association with God’s inferior energy and instead become attached to the superior energy. What is the difference between these two energies? God’s personal realm, which includes all of His personal expansions and things created by His internal energy, is known as the spiritual world. The material world is everything else, i.e. the place that we currently inhabit. Spirit is immutable, unchangeable, and eternal. Therefore anything that is part of the spiritual energy will inherit these traits. Though the material world was also created by the Supreme Spirit, God, it has different characteristics. This is by design. God’s external energy is meant to be temporary and flawed because it exists solely for those living entities who want to pretend to be God. There can only be one “God” in the spiritual world, so if we want to imitate the Lord, we have to associate with an inferior energy.

Lord Krishna “So the material world is bad and the spiritual world is good. But I live in the material world right now? How do I get out?” To help the living entities break free of the delusion brought upon by the material qualities, God gave us dharma. More than just religion, dharma is something that is ever-existing inside of us. It is what defines us. Currently we are falsely identifying ourselves as Americans, Indians, African-Americans, whites, etc. Our true identity is that of a spirit soul, an eternal servant of God. Dharma is that discipline which helps us remember this fact. When we understand that we are God’s servants and not ourselves God, our whole outlook on life changes.

“One who can control his senses by practicing the regulated principles of freedom can obtain the complete mercy of the Lord and thus become free from all attachment and aversion.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.64)

Those who are God conscious decide that the aim of life is to serve God and nothing else. Therefore they can still do the same day-to-day activities, but they don’t have any attachment to them. If we don’t have any attachment to these activities, why should we even perform them? The answer is that our bodies must be maintained somehow. We can only realize God if we are alive. We all have different qualities and desires, and therefore we have a penchant to perform different kinds of work. This work is what maintains our bodies; therefore it should not be given up on a whim. It is wiser to continue with our prescribed duties, while simultaneously developing a loving attachment to God.

How do we achieve this condition? The easiest way is to regularly chant the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. We can also read books about God, visit His temples, talk to other devotees, and sing songs about Him. The possibilities are endless. These activities can all be performed by any person, regardless of their disposition, cultural background, age, etc. This discipline is known as bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service. Bhagavata refers to Bhagavan, which is a more accurate name for God. The Vedas tell us that the supreme living entity is so great that the name God doesn’t do Him justice. A better word is Bhagavan, which means one who possesses all opulences and fortunes.

Lord Rama and wife Sital Now that we have established that material life is full of ups and downs and that our real mission in life is to associate with God, does this mean we will achieve perfection? Simply knowing the temporary nature of this world and the ultimate objective in life is not enough. We need these facts reinforced from time to time. We need to consult real-life examples of these principles in action. We also need examples of great personalities who adhered to these principles and made their lives perfect. To help us in our pursuit of religious life, the Supreme Lord Himself personally advents on earth from time to time. One such appearance took place thousands of years ago in Ayodhya, India. The great Vedic texts such as the Mahabharata and Shrimad Bhagavatam tell us that God has unlimited forms, ananta-rupam. He also has unlimited incarnations that appear on earth, meaning there are too many forms of Godhead to count. However, there is still a list provided of the primary incarnations, or avataras. Lord Rama, the handsome prince of Ayodhya, is considered one of these primary avataras.

Lord Rama’s life was full of so many ups and downs that His primary pastimes were recorded in a wonderful poem known as the Ramayana, authored by Maharishi Valmiki. The sage is considered the author of the book, but that doesn’t accurately describe his role. The Ramayana contains details of historical events, so it wasn’t as if Valmiki just made everything up. Rather, he took the most notable events and related them together in his poem. One of the more memorable events of Lord Rama’s life was His time spent in the forests of India. Banished in exile by His father, Maharaja Dasharatha, Rama roamed the forests for fourteen years with His wife, Sita Devi, and younger brother, Lakshmana. On one occasion, Sita was kidnapped by the demon Ravana while Rama and Lakshmana were not with her.

Lakshmana In the above referenced quote, Lakshmana is trying to calm his elder brother, who is quite grief-stricken over the kidnap of His wife. Rama was so upset that He was ready to destroy the whole world, something He was more than capable of doing. Playing the part of a kshatriya warrior, Rama was the greatest of archers. The arrows shot from His bow were equivalent to today’s nuclear weapons in strength. He easily could have destroyed the whole world simply by shooting a few arrows. Lakshmana advised Rama against such action. He wanted to get the point across that good and bad things come on their own, and that one should always remain on the path of dharma at all times.

“He [King Yayati ] reached the heavenly planets by dint of his pious acts, but he fell down from there because of his self-advertisement and criticizing other great souls. After his fall, his daughter and grandson bestowed upon him their accumulated virtues, and by the help of his grandson and friend Shibi, he was again promoted to the heavenly kingdom, becoming one of the assembly members of Yamaraja, with whom he is staying as a devotee.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.12.24 Purport)

Shrila Prabhupada To get his point across, Lakshmana referenced a famous incident regarding King Yayati. The great Vedic texts give us the lineage, or vamshas, of the prominent families that existed at the beginning of creation. Each one of these dynasties had a famous king who established the family’s reputation. King Yayati was one such king who was so pious and well-respected that he ascended to the heavenly planets after death. Among most followers of the Christian faith, the belief is that you either go to heaven or hell after death, depending on how you behaved during your lifetime. The Vedas also agree with this conclusion, except they give us more detail as to what actually makes up heaven and hell.

“When they have thus enjoyed heavenly sense pleasure, they return to this mortal planet again. Thus, through the Vedic principles, they achieve only flickering happiness.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.21)

Lord Rama Heaven and hell are both considered part of the material world, or God’s inferior energy. This means that both realms are subject to creation and destruction. Therefore we can conclude that anyone who resides there must have to leave at some point. The Vedas tell us that our time spent in heaven is commensurate with the merits accumulated from our pious activities. This means that ascending to material heaven does not represent perfection in life. Once we reach there, we are more than susceptible to falling back down to earth. This was the case with Yayati. He made a transgression while residing in heaven and was thus forced to come back to earth. His example is often quoted when describing the reality of reincarnation and the temporary nature of happiness and distress.

What we learn from this is that the performance of pious deeds does not represent the pinnacle of devotional practice. Dharma helps us stay on the righteous path, but our pious activities must lead to attachment to God. If we don’t develop that attachment, we can’t achieve true perfection. Lord Rama was God Himself, so He had no need for self-realization, but to play the part of a human being, He engaged in lamentation from time to time. What’s so wonderful about this incident is that since it describes a conversation between God and His brother, it is completely spiritual in nature. Simply by hearing it, we are associating with the spiritual energy. Eventually Rama would heed Lakshmana’s advice and compose Himself. He would go on to rescue Sita and defeat Ravana in battle. Though nothing in the material world lasts forever, if we dedicate ourselves to bhagavata-dharma, we can enjoy eternal felicity in the imperishable spiritual sky with the Supreme Lord.