“Tell me, O best of men, which living entities aren't affected by danger, which is like a fire that catches on and then eventually vanishes?” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.6)
One of the more memorable instructions from the Bhagavad-gita is that one should remain calm and peaceful at all times, even through adversity. The Gita is a spiritual text describing the famous conversation between Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and His disciple and cousin, Arjuna. The conversation touches on a wide variety of topics, including the eternal nature of the soul and how one should go about conducting themselves in their day-to-day lives. Since the work is so compelling, even non-devotees and religious scholars have taken to studying it. The passages relating to how one should deal with stressful situations are very appealing to people of all persuasions. Lord Krishna’s ultimate instruction is that we should not let the ups and downs of material life get in the way of executing our prescribed duties. Nothing should get in the way of achieving perfection in life.
Who among us doesn’t have trouble dealing with adversity? Something as simple as bad weather can put us in a foul mood. In the Northeastern part of the United States, the weather is always changing. It never stays too hot or too cold for any extended period of time. People living in this area have to deal with heavy rains, snow, scorching heat, and high humidity. Even during the spring and autumn months, where the temperatures are not extreme in either direction, people have to deal with allergies. The allergic reactions from pollen, grass, and trees can be more painful than even extreme temperatures. Allergies cause our skin to itch, our nose to run, and our eyes to become red.
In industrialized nations, another cause of great discomfort is automobile traffic. The car is certainly a great invention, for it allows anyone to be a captain of their own ship. The automobile is the symbol of freedom, with the inside of the car being a place where no one can boss you around. You can drive wherever you want, at any time of the day or year. Driving should be a smooth task, but what causes hiccups is the fact that there are other drivers on the road. We are all equally citizens after all, so each one of us has an equal right to enjoy our God-given liberty. Problems do arise, however, when there are too many cars on the road. This leads to a condition referred to as traffic. High volume is not the only cause of traffic either. Congestion can also result from car accidents, inclement weather, and road construction. As soon as it starts raining or snowing, people reduce their driving speeds.
Traffic can be very irritating to the impatient driver. It’s an inconvenience that usually comes unexpectedly. “Why can’t the cars in front of me just move already? Why are they driving so slow?” These are some of our lamentations as we sit in the car and anxiously wait for the traffic to clear. Inconveniences can also be caused by other drivers. Since we all possess different material qualities, not all of us will be “good” drivers. Some will drive slower than others, some will be more willing to adhere to traffic laws, and some will have no concern for other drivers whatsoever. In America, the left-hand lane on a highway is considered the passing lane. If you are stuck behind a slow car, you can move to the left lane to pass that car. Yet many people like to park themselves in the left lane and simply coast. They have no desire to pass anybody. This not only goes against driving etiquette, but it also leads to increased congestion, and eventually accidents. Cars that want to pass now have to hope that the right lane, the slower lane, is free in order to be able to get around the slow car in the left lane.
These and other issues on the road can cause us to lose our temper. There is a common phenomenon known as “road rage” which describes the anger people feel when driving. In America there are driving courses that people can take that will help them save money on their car insurance. These classes, which last for more than five hours, always include a section about dealing with road rage.
Why is it important to educate people about keeping their cool? In most instances, losing our temper leads to bad things. When driving, if we lose our temper, we are more likely to get into an accident. We may decide to start harassing another car that is out on the road, or we will start cursing and yelling. Simply based on the immediate results of this rage, we can see that it is better to keep our cool. If we step back from the situation, we see that road rage makes absolutely no sense. In the grand scheme of things, if it takes a little longer to get to where we are going, what have we really lost? If someone insults us on the road, what do we really gain by engaging them? On the other hand, if we get into an accident as a result of our rage, we can lose our life in an instant.
The wise are those who realize the temporary nature of life’s ups and downs, and thus always keep their cool. It is better to remain calm and collected since this is a condition more conducive for focusing on the task at hand. While abiding by this principle is important in our normal everyday affairs, it takes on an even greater role in spiritual life. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that human life is meant for God realization. What does this mean exactly? The human being is considered the most advanced species due to its level of intelligence. Animals, plants, and aquatics have no idea who they are, or why they are put on this earth. They don’t even realize they are going to die. Fish are not smart enough to realize that if they eat too much food at one time, they will die.
Through trial and error, and through the teachings passed down by previous generations, we human beings can understand all of these things. Every one of our ancestors has died. They were no different than us when their lives started. They had hopes and dreams; they wanted to be happy and peaceful. Yet in the end, they were still forced to die. Therefore we can conclude that we must also have to die at some point. Knowing this, what is the point to life? Why are we put here on this earth if we don’t get to stay here?
People take different approaches towards answering these questions. Some like to study nature, trying to rule out various reasons as to what the point of life is. The first thing that gets ruled out is sense gratification. By nature, an animal simply wants to take part in eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. Human beings also have these tendencies, but since we know that we are going to die, we can see that there must be more to life than just temporary sense gratification.
If sense gratification is bad, then maybe the opposite is good? Maybe the point to human life is to negate all activity and hope to eventually achieve a state of peace? This is the philosophy of the jnanis, or impersonalist speculators. This line of thinking may seem plausible, but it doesn’t explain why we were put here in the first place. If the aim of life is to stop activity, why was there any activity to begin with? If material nature is so bad, who created it? Why does it exist at all?
We can go on mentally speculating in this way forever and never come to a concrete conclusion. The great saints of the past tell us that there is a good reason for this. Our brains are products of this material creation, so they are flawed in nature. We certainly have superiority over all other species in the intelligence category, but this does not mean that we are the smartest person. After all, we weren’t even able to control the circumstances of our birth, so how smart can we actually be? The great sages of India tell us that the smartest person in the world is God. He is the source of all things matter and spirit. It is due to His intelligence that this material world exists. He allowed us to come to this world and associate with matter. For this reason, God is more accurately defined as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This supreme person also has a name: Lord Shri Krishna.
How do we know about Krishna? We can’t find Him through mental speculation or by performing mathematical proofs. The only way we can even begin to understand Him is to hear from His devotee. A pure devotee of Krishna is one who has learned the science of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, from his own spiritual master. If we ascend the chain of spiritual masters, we eventually make our way to Krishna, or God. Perfect knowledge can only be acquired from someone who is perfect themselves. As human beings we are most certainly a flawed species, prone to committing mistakes and cheating. However, these defects don’t exist in God. Therefore His teachings are perfect, and anyone who properly understands them is also perfect.
“Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, offer obeisances and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.34)
The spotless spiritual masters, the great Vaishnava saints, tell us that the point of human life is to use our intelligence to serve God. The process is actually quite simple: learn to love God and you will always remain in His association. The idea is to change our consciousness. Currently all the plans that we make are related to material life, those things which are temporary. Perfection is achieved when our consciousness is changed from the material to the spiritual. We are all spirit souls at our core, but God is the Supreme Spirit. If we think of Him at all times in a loving way, we can achieve perfection in life. If we are Krishna conscious at the time of death, we immediately ascend to the spiritual sky, wherefrom we never return.
This formula seems simple enough. We just take to any of the nine processes of devotional service, and everything will be hunky-dory. But things aren’t that easy. The famous acharya, Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, used to say that the path of devotional life is one riddled with thorns. This means that initially taking up bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service, can be very difficult. This is pretty easy to understand actually. We are so used to our conditional life that spiritual life is something foreign to us. The key components of devotional life are the regular chanting of God’s names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and abstention from the four pillars of sinful life: meat-eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication.
Just the requirement of giving up intoxication is enough to disqualify many from becoming God conscious. There are other issues to deal with as well, such as friends, family, work, and school. Most everyone is in a conditioned state, so they are unfamiliar with the tenets of the Vedas. Anyone who takes up the sublime mission of devotional service likely won’t have many friends to consult or people to help them. This makes things difficult in the beginning stages. Spiritual life is meant to be simple, so any obstacles that come in our way can seriously hamper our mood.
The key is to always remain steadfast and realize that ups and downs are both temporary. This was the lesson taught by Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama. In the above referenced quote, Lakshmana is counseling Rama by telling Him that peril certainly comes to everyone, but that it quickly disappears just as how a small fire eventually burns out. Lord Rama was an incarnation of God who appeared on earth many thousands of years ago. He assumed the guise of a human being and played the role of a pious, kshatriya prince. On one occasion, Rama’s wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped in the forest in Rama’s absence. Unable to find Sita, Rama gave way to lamentation and anger. He was ready to destroy the entire world out of rage; something He was more than capable of doing considering He was God Himself.
One would be hard pressed to find a better brother than Lakshmana. He always looked out for Rama, even though the Lord didn’t require such help. Lakshmana loved Rama purely and without any motive. Since he was a perfect devotee, it’s not surprising to see that his words of advice were perfect as well. Lord Rama was God Himself, but He was playing the role of an ordinary human being. To relate to the rest of us, Rama decided to openly show His grief for having lost Sita. After this talk, however, Rama’s spirits were uplifted and He resumed His search for His wife. With the help of Lakshmana and the Vanara army led by Hanuman, Rama would eventually find and rescue Sita.
The best gurus, or spiritual masters, are those who give us the proper advice at just the right time. Lakshmana was one such guru. His instructions were perfect many thousands of years ago, and they still remain so today. We will all most certainly face trouble in our religious pursuits, but we should never let temporary gains or setbacks take us off the straightened path. Heat and cold, pains and pleasures, victories and defeats all come and go on their own. The aim of life is to achieve the ultimate victory of returning back to Godhead. This reward can only be secured by those who can weather all of life’s storms. Always keeping Lakshmana’s words in mind, we can most certainly achieve success.