“The activities or desires that relatively help a soul attain his constitutional position are called piety. The opposite are called sin. Since devotional service to Krishna is one’s constitutional position, when one cultivates this service, then nescience, which is the root cause of relative situations in the form of sin and piety, is gradually fried and abolished.” (Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Shri Krishna Samhita, 10.2 Purport)
Sin and piety represent the polar ends of the spectrum of all activity. Sin is considered any bad activity; those actions which are harmful to the betterment of the soul or those deeds which go against the established rules and mores of a society. Piety is just the opposite; anything considered to be good and noble. Usually piety is associated with honesty, charity, and the performance of various religious functions. While sin and piety certainly do play a prominent role in the spiritual practices of those around the world, the Vedas tell us that one must take to activities which transcend these two designations. The aim of human life is to achieve a permanent return to one’s constitutional position.
To understand this point more clearly, let us analyze the results of sin and piety. The actual definition of what constitutes sin can vary depending on the time, circumstance, and nature of activities. Sin also can apply to any activity, not just those in the religious scope. In simple terms, we can think of sin as any activity which is done incorrectly. For example, say that we are building a house. There are certain rules and regulations to follow in order for a proper structure to be erected. The beams and columns must be placed in a certain orientation; the foundation must be laid properly, etc. If the people building the house don’t align everything properly, they are essentially committing sin. In this scope, there are varying degrees of sin. If a wall is not laid down properly, the result of the sin may be a loud house, or a wall structure which doesn’t take well to paint and the hanging of pictures, etc. A larger sin, however, can be the misplacement of a beam. This can lead to a disastrous result such as structural damage later on. People could end up dying due to this sin.
We can take the same example of the house and look at the other end of the spectrum to get an idea about piety. Pious acts are those performed in knowledge; activities which are in line with the proper code of conduct. If the house is built according to code, the established guidelines, the result will be a situation devoid of the aforementioned negative consequences. Piety brings about more than just an elimination of negative side effects. A properly constructed house means that a person will be able to enjoy their living arrangements; gaining the ability to host parties, welcome guests, and raise a family. A house is something people strongly identify with; it’s where memories are made and relationships are formed. For most people, their childhood home is the place looked to with the most fondness. So in this regard, we see that piety can have very nice consequences.
One thing that both of these activities have in common is that the results are temporary. When committing sin while building the house, the negative consequences can be small or great, but the resulting distress is only temporary. The same holds true with the result of pious works. If we expand this truth to the spiritual realm, we can get a better understanding of why the Vedas tell us to transcend piety and sin. The Vedas are the ancient scriptures of India. When the word “Veda” is translated into English, it means knowledge. There are various departments of knowledge based on the scope of activities, but the highest knowledge is that pertaining to the soul. The soul forms the basis of identity, the driving force for all activities. It is the future destination of the soul that the Vedas are most concerned with. When analyzing piety and sin in terms of its effect on the soul, one will see that the resulting positive and negative consequences are only relative.
“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.20)
Vedic wisdom states that the primary functional unit of life is the soul; an entity which is eternal and never takes birth and never dies. Vedic information doesn’t stop here. We also get information of the soul’s constitutional makeup. When we study matter or any material structure, gaining further insight into its makeup sheds more light about the structure and how it works. The culinary arts also work in this way. If we eat something that tastes very nice, it’s helpful to find out what ingredients are found in the dish. This way we can take some of the same ingredients and use them to make even more tasty dishes. By the same token, if we understand the constitutional position of the soul, we can gain better insight into how to work with it and give it pleasure.
The Vedas describe the soul as being amazing, unchanging, and immutable. These properties are inherited from the creator of the soul: God. In this sense, the soul is the same as God, but there is a slight difference. Since God is superior to the soul, the soul is incapable of equaling the Lord in terms of quantitative powers. Since the soul comes from God, its constitutional position is that of eternal servant and associate of the Supreme Lord. While there are many ideas of who God is and what He looks like, the Vedas inform us that He is indeed a person. Not only is He a person, but He’s the most attractive person, one who provides the greatest amount of pleasure to the soul . Thus the natural conclusion that can be derived from this information is that the aim of human life is to rekindle the association with the most attractive entity: the soul meeting God.
How do we meet God? Is He with us now? If not, then why are we separated from Him? Currently the souls residing in this world are deemed as conditioned. The soul becomes conditioned upon assuming a temporary body composed of material elements. The nature of these elements can be classified into three different categories: goodness, passion, and ignorance. Since these categories of elements can be mixed in multitudes of proportions, there are many varieties of material bodies which the soul can be placed into. The human body represents one such variety. While this outer covering is temporary, the imperishable soul continues to jump from one body to another through the process of reincarnation. Reincarnation continues until the soul finally desires to return to its constitutional position.
This seems easy enough. The human being simply has to desire to return to its original position and perfection is thus achieved. This is easier said than done though. Assuming a material body brings along some not so nice side effects, the primary of which is false identification. As mentioned before, an individual takes their identity from the soul. The outer covering of the soul is only temporary and constantly changing. However, upon becoming conditioned, the subtle element of the mind causes the conditioned soul to associate only with the body, almost completely forgetting the presence of the soul and where it came from. In order to regain the proper understanding, the correct personal identification, one has to take to certain activities prescribed in the Vedas.
This is where sin and piety come in. Sin can be thought of as activities in the mode of ignorance. These acts cause the conditioned soul to become even more forgetful of its relationship to God. In order to help the soul achieve perfection in life, the Vedas, and any worthwhile spiritual discipline for that matter, recommend that one abstain from sinful activities. The more one stays away from sin, the greater their chances are of reclaiming their lost identity.
Piety is any activity which brings about a temporary return to one’s constitutional position. For example, say we perform a sacrifice intended to bring about great material rewards. “Please God, give us our daily bread. Please God, let us go to heaven.” These are undoubtedly pious pleas, with God consciousness at the forefront. While a person is performing such activities, they are thinking about God and realizing His supremacy. In this regard, the performers are somewhat returning to their constitutional position. At the same time, however, once the rewards are achieved, the purified constitutional position is again forgotten. This is because once the rewards of piety arrive, a person’s focus shifts towards the enjoyment of these rewards versus actually remembering God.
People who sin are advised to take to various kinds of atonement, while those who are not religious are advised to take to certain pious acts such as charity, sacrifice, and austerity. While piety and sin are certainly important and should not be overlooked, a higher engagement is to take to activities which bring about a permanent return to one’s constitutional position. There is only one discipline that allows a person to achieve this purified state: bhakti-yoga. Bhakti is love or devotion, and yoga is the linking of the soul with God, so when taken together, bhakti-yoga can be thought of as the religion of love, or devotional service. This discipline is aimed at keeping one always thinking of God, hence the resulting condition is known as God consciousness.
The term “God” is very generic and doesn’t speak to the Supreme Lord’s limitless attributes. To give us further insight into the true nature of the Supreme Lord, the Vedas describe the different forms the Supreme Divine takes, and the corresponding names for such forms. Of all the forms of God, obviously the original will be the most potent and therefore the most attractive to the conditioned souls. The original form of God is known as Krishna, meaning one who is all-attractive. Since Krishna’s form is so beautiful, He is also known as Shyamasundara. Bhakti-yoga aims at keeping the mind always attached to Krishna, or at least to one of His direct plenary expansions such as Lord Vishnu, Rama, Narasimha, Chaitanya, etc. In this age, the easiest way to always remain connected with God is to chant the famous maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
Ironically enough, those who take to the path of bhakti don’t have to worry about performing pious and sinful activities. This isn’t to say that piety is ignored or that sins are committed, but rather the devotee doesn’t concern themselves with relative adjustments to their constitutional position. An analogy can help us understand this principle. Say we are training for an important tennis match. During practice sessions, we will want to focus on certain activities, working on certain aspects of our game. If we make mistakes during this time, we may want to voluntarily punish ourselves and force atonement through various activities. This is a way to train our bodies to avoid committing the same mistakes in the future. At the same time, we can also take to various activities which will give us rewards. Say for example we hit three aces in a row; we can give ourselves a nice reward for this. The idea is to encourage positive activity.
Now let’s shift the focus to the actual match that we play afterwards. If during the match we commit the same mistakes that we punished ourselves for during practice, are we going to want to worry about atonement? Obviously we aren’t since the ultimate goal is to win the match. Mistakes will be made, but the successful player will shrug them off and keep the end-goal of winning the match at the forefront of the mind. By the same token, if we play very well for one set during the match, there is no need to reward ourselves. The goal is to win enough sets to win the match, and celebrating upon reaching a certain benchmark doesn’t really do anything for us. The ultimate objective is to win and not concern ourselves with temporary setbacks or gains.
“Anyone who quits his body, at the end of life, remembering Me, attains immediately to My nature; and there is no doubt of this.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)
In the arena of bhakti-yoga, the ultimate objective is to permanently return to one’s constitutional position, that of eternal servant of Krishna. This can be achieved by keeping Krishna at the forefront of one’s consciousness. If this mindset is there at the time of death, a time that none of us can accurately foretell, we will immediately return to the spiritual world and reassume our original position. We should do our best to avoid sinful activities, especially those of meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. We should also perform as many pious activities as possible, but they should all be directed at pleasing Krishna. By sticking to these principles, we can gradually return to our original constitutional position, thus eliminating the root cause of all relative situations. When the relative changes in consciousness are removed, everything is then seen in the light of Krishna; thus in this state there is no need to worry about piety or sin.