“…the ritualistic performances, charity and austerity, which are recommended in the Vedas may temporarily stop one from acting in sinful ways, but as long as the heart is not clear, one will have to repeat sinful activities again and again.” (Shrila Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch. 1)
The average lifetime of a human being consists of many days and nights, so major scares are bound to come up every now and then, incidents which bring a person to the verge of death or some other major calamity. If one is lucky enough to survive these scares, they should take every opportunity to prevent them from reoccurring. Some things such as accidents and natural disasters are more or less unavoidable, but other scares come about through choices that are made. By doing a quick study of some of the more common problems people run into, the evidence points to the fact that even the worst scares aren’t enough to prevent people from taking up the same dangerous activities in the future.
Skiing is one of the more popular sports in the wintertime. Often times a bunch of friends get together, huddle up in a van, and drive up to a mountain. There they set up shop in a lodge, get a lift ticket, and reach the top of the mountain. Skiing is essentially falling down a mountain in a somewhat controlled manner. You’re falling down the mountain, but you try to have control over your body. To make things more interesting, you’re given skis, two long poles attached to your feet, which help you fall down the mountain even faster. Skiing is not easy, and it takes great skill to be able to make it down the mountain safely and in one piece. Most beginners will surely fall several times in their initial attempts, but if you can master the art, skiing becomes a very exhilarating sport, so much so that it is one of the major events of the Winter Olympics.
Good skiers can go down a mountain at the same speed of an automobile on a highway. Falling down a mountain at such a rapid pace is certainly exhilarating, but there is an inherent risk involved. Just one small slip up, one mistake, and you can be part of a serious accident. Since you are travelling so fast, if you lose control, you can start to tumble in such a violent way that you can risk serious injury. Some people die as a result of skiing accidents.
There are other similar sports that one can take up while on a mountain. Snowboarding is very similar to skiing and there is also snowmobiling. Since these activities involve being on a high mountaintop with lots of snow, there are bound to be accidents. Another issue to contend with is the weather. If you’re travelling down a mountain and make a wrong turn, you can get lost very easily. Some people end up stuck on a mountain somewhere with no one around to help them. A successful rescue requires teams patrolling the mountain during the odd hours of the night.
For the people that are stranded, the situation seems pretty dire. You’re out in the cold with no source of food or heat. If you’re stuck somewhere on the mountain, it’s more than likely that you are injured or that your equipment is broken. If that is the case, you are unable to move around and call for help. Another issue to deal with is an avalanche or a snowstorm. This makes it even harder for people to come and rescue you. Luckily, these situations are very rare. Many people are able to survive through them with the help of rescue teams.
Any time one of these emergency situations arises, there is coverage in the national news media about it. Several famous celebrities have been involved in skiing/snowboarding accidents. Many have also been stranded on a mountain and required a rescue. Emergency situations are sure to arise from time to time in any venture, and many skiers and snowboarders do just fine on their own. We have no control over the events of nature, but how do people react to these near-death experiences if they do occur? Do they give up skiing as a result? Do they give up snowboarding? On the contrary, people still take to these dangerous activities knowing full well the risks that are involved.
This is certainly a head-scratcher. This situation is the equivalent of a person getting lost, being rescued, and then immediately taking the same erroneous path again. It’s essentially a repeating cycle of lost and found. Why does this happen? Why do we repeatedly perform activities that we know are bad for us? Skiing is certainly not the only dangerous activity that is out there. We see people getting married, getting divorced, and then immediately remarrying. We see women get pregnant in their teenage years and struggle with raising their child, only to then take to illicit sex life later on.
Harmful behavior can only be eradicated if we have a higher engagement. Simple abstention is not enough since it is the nature of the human spirit to be active. We need to be doing something at all times, even if it involves passive activities such as watching television or sitting on the couch. When we take to activity, we naturally want to do things which stimulate our mind and senses. The problem is that the activities which best stimulate the senses are often those which are the most harmful.
So what can be done? The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that the living entities need a higher engagement, something which transcends all other activities. Not only does this engagement need to occupy our time, but it needs to exceed the sense stimulation provided by our harmful activities. Luckily for us, there is a discipline which fits the bill. Due to our constitutional makeup, we are already inclined towards this activity. This discipline is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service.
Devotional service is a full-time engagement which involves dovetailing all our activities for the benefit of the Supreme Lord Shri Krishna, or God. This engagement is more than just ordinary religious activity. Religion generally involves various rituals and regulations which are often adhered to without any knowledge of the underlying cause. We often go to church because we have to, not because we want to. We avoid the don’ts and stick to the dos as a matter of duty, not really knowing the who, what, and why. Devotional service is all encompassing, and the justification for the activities it involves is quite clear.
So what makes up devotional service? We can think of it as the religion of love. Devotional activities are performed simply for the benefit of God, the origin of all matter and spirit. These activities are not performed for a personal benefit, though the performer most certainly reaps the highest rewards. The aim of devotional service also has nothing to do with getting the participants to avoid sinful activity, though they most certainly give up all harmful behavior on their own. Moreover, devotional service doesn’t even require specific activities, for simply having a sincere desire to please God is enough to achieve perfection.
So how does devotional service work? Generally, devotional activities can be grouped into nine categories: hearing, chanting, remembering, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, worshiping, offering prayers, becoming a servant of the Lord, becoming friends with the Lord, and surrendering body, mind, and spirit to the Lord. The two most effective processes for this age are chanting and hearing, both of which can be performed by regularly chanting the Lord’s names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This sacred formula is so nice because there is no hidden agenda involved. One does not chant this mantra for peace, good health, or a nice bank balance. Even if one does have hidden agendas, the Lord kindly forgives them. He is not obliged to grant material benedictions; He is just happy to hear us chanting His names. The more sincerely we chant these names, the closer we come to loving God.
What happens as a result of loving God? For starters, we automatically give up all bad habits. The beauty of devotional service is that it is our natural engagement, something which we are never meant to give up. This is in stark contrast to the mundane activities we currently devote ourselves to. We may take up skiing for a few months, but after a while we’ll jump to something else. We may take to drinking alcohol on the weekends, but soon after we are looking for happiness elsewhere. Devotional service is not like this. One who sincerely takes to the yoga of love will soon be looking for more and more ways to serve the Lord. God is the original friend of the living entities, so those who are able to find Him never want to let Him go.
The Vedas recommend various penances as a way of eradicating sins. Two of the more common penances are charity and austerity. Charity is a form of sacrifice, the voluntary donation of our hard-earned wealth and possessions. Austerity involves renunciation, abstention from the activities that we are most addicted to and that are the most harmful to us. Austerity is the thing which most people focus on in the initial stages of spiritual life. When comparing religious faiths, people will often look right away to the restrictions and the recommended austerity measures. Sincere devotees of Krishna abstain from meat eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling. One look at these four regulative principles is enough to make a person panic.
But the secret to devotional service is that by taking up a full-time engagement which provides transcendental pleasure, one automatically gives up all bad habits. If you talk to a sincere devotee of Krishna and ask them about the four regulative principles, it is likely they aren’t even consciously aware of them. Devotees soon forget that they are vegetarians and that they don’t gamble. After all, their lives revolve around Krishna, who is the most attractive person in all the three worlds. As the supreme object of pleasure, Krishna causes one to forget their adherence to regulative principles, even if they are already strictly abiding by them.
“For one who worships Me, giving up all his activities unto Me and being devoted to Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service and always meditating upon Me, who has fixed his mind upon Me, O son of Pritha, for him I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.6-7)
Bhakti-yoga is the highest spiritual discipline because it clears the heart of all dirty things. When we are rescued from life’s calamitous situations, if we don’t clear our hearts and minds, we are likely to go down the wrong road again. Lord Krishna, through His holy name, is the greatest rescuer, for He makes sure that once we find Him, we don’t get lost again.