“A yogi is greater than the ascetic, greater than the empiricist and greater than the fruitive worker. Therefore, O Arjuna, in all circumstances, be a yogi.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.46)
There are so many different paths towards spiritual salvation, and it seems like each interested party insists that their path is the only way towards perfection. Salvation in Vedic terms is referred to as apavarga, which is the elimination of bondage, fearfulness, exhaustion, defeat, and death. Though salvation is defined in non-sectarian terms, amongst the strictest followers of the Vedas, those who desire to love God in a pure way, there seems to be an insistence on a singular path, that of bhakti. If we do a careful study, however, we’ll see that the prescriptions provided by Shri Chaitanyadeva, namely those of chanting and abstention from sinful activities, are merely the beginning processes, the best means for achieving the greatest end. After one takes a sincere interest in spiritual life and tries to regularly connect with God, the next step is totally up to the individual. “Whatever works” is how the saying goes, so when applied to spiritual life it means that whatever path one can take towards achieving pure love for God is the path that should be taken.
To help us understand this point more clearly, we can look at the world of sports. In America, one of the more popular pastimes is baseball. This sport is similar to cricket in that it involves batsmen and bowlers, except that in baseball terminology, these entities are referred to as batters and pitchers. The pitchers throw the ball and the hitters hit it. After hitting the ball, the batter runs around the bases. If he makes it all the way around the four bases before three outs are recorded in a specific inning, he has scored a run. The team with the most runs scored at the end of the game wins. The batting stance employed by the hitters makes for an interesting study. In the major leagues, pitchers throw the ball at upwards of 90 miles per hour, so hitting is really an art form. Not only does a batter need to be able to hit the ball, but he needs to decide whether or not to swing. If the pitch is out of the strike zone, the batter is advised not to swing. Such a pitch is referred to as a “ball”, and if a pitcher throws four balls before throwing three strikes, the batter advances one base.
Needless to say, batting is very difficult. There are several fundamental techniques that must be employed in order for a a batter to be successful. A hitter has to keep their eye on the ball as soon as it leaves the pitcher’s hand, remain steady in their stance, maintain their weight on the back foot, and then make sure their swing is steady throughout. The batter should also try their best to keep an eye on the ball all the way through contact. While these fundamentals are adhered to by all the good batters, the implementations certainly vary. The batting stance illustrates this variation. There are no two batters in baseball with the exact same stance. Some hitters are left-handed, while others are right-handed, but the differences go further than that. Some batters like to keep an open stance before batting, allowing them to create sort of a sling-shot motion when they swing. Some batters like to crouch down, so as to keep their eyes steady on the ball. Some batters like to wiggle their bat violently just before the pitch comes so that they get used to the motion of the bat. Others like to remain completely still, so as to not distract from their concentration.
So we see that there are so many different techniques, yet also so many good batters. Good hitters go through years and years of training in their youth, but even in the major leagues each team retains a hitting coach or instructor. This means that the learning never stops, yet still each player has their own unique style. The goal for the hitting instructor is to find the strengths of the player. The instructor then teaches the player how to utilize these attributes in their batting technique. The idea is that the player should use whatever specifically works for them. There is no universal batting stance or batting preparation.
Spiritual life can be viewed in the same light. All the different sects and congregations seem to have their own view on what is needed in spiritual life, with each one claiming their method is the correct one. The key, however, is to reach the end-goal: love for God. It would be hard to dispute that loving the Supreme Creator could be anything but the topmost goal for any human being. Understanding this goal at the outset helps us eliminate many of the pretender religious systems. Those leaders who take to the path of jnana and karma can be ignored by those who are seeking a higher enjoyment. The reason for this is that jnana, which is the acquisition of knowledge, and karma, which is fruitive activity, are meaningless in the absence of a relation to God.
When we add the term “yoga” to these activities, then we are getting somewhere. Jnana-yoga and karma-yoga are valid paths towards the Absolute Truth. Yoga means the union of the soul with God, or more simply just “plus”. For there to be an addition operation, there must be at least two operands. In terms of spiritual life, yoga can be considered the addition operator, with the two operands being the individual soul and the Supersoul, or God’s expansion residing within the heart of every living entity. If we take to acquiring knowledge or fruitive activity, all with the aim of connecting with God, then we are on the right path. We can even throw in meditational yoga, which is commonly referred to as raja, hatha, or dhyana, into this mix. The idea is that whatever path of yoga helps you achieve love of God is the path that you should take.
“In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy the only means of deliverance is the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. There is no other way. There is no other way. There is no other way.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 7.76)
Followers of Lord Chaitanya, the preacher incarnation of Godhead, believe that in this age there is no other way towards salvation, or apavarga, then the chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Along with this chanting routine, followers of Chaitanyadeva refrain from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. This formula, which represents activity in bhakti-yoga, seems like it’s too specific and goes against the formula of “whatever works”. Upon closer study, however, we’ll see that these recommendations are only the beginning.
As we saw with the example of baseball batters, the key to success in hitting is adhering to certain guidelines, following certain fundamentals. How one goes about adhering to these fundamentals is up to the individual. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription that allows every person to become an expert hitter. By the same token, we shouldn’t take the process of harinama-sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the names of Hari [Krishna], as the only method of self-realization. While it’s certainly not a requirement for everyone to take to chanting, the fundamentals behind the practice speak to its effectiveness and also reveal the ultimate objective behind any bona fide spiritual discipline. The key fundamental, the ultimate goal in spiritual life, is to always be thinking of God. That is how love manifests after all. If the wife complains that the husband doesn’t love her, she is referring to the fact that the husband is not always conscious of her emotions and needs. “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t have forgotten our anniversary. If you really loved me, you would know why I’m angry with you right now.” The key ingredient in love is consciousness, keeping the object of affection always on the mind.
“And of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.47)
The chanting routine prescribed by Lord Chaitanya quickly takes a person to the proper consciousness, a stage where they are thinking of God at all times. This method is considered the most effective for this age because it brings the most people towards God consciousness. However, we shouldn’t think of chanting as the only religious practice or the end of spiritual life. God consciousness is the beginning stage of love, and as we all know, love is not something that goes away. When a person is in love, it means that they are always acting to please the object of their affection. Therefore when one takes up the chanting process and refrains from committing the four primary sins, it is the beginning of their loving relationship. What happens next is up to the individual.
Since the goal is to always please the Lord and be thinking of Him, not every person’s loving propensities will manifest through the same activities. The idea of spiritual life is not to turn people into robots, but rather to let them be free to express their loving feelings without inhibition. For this reason, we see some devotees really take to congregational chanting, or sankirtana. They write songs and perform them with others. They spend almost all of their day chanting and singing. Lord Chaitanya especially loved this style of devotion; He would regularly dance and sing in front of deities of Krishna, especially during Ratha-yatra parades. Then there are devotees who take to writing; they write as many books as they can, not letting a single moment go by without recording their knowledge and love for the Lord. Then there are those who take to lecturing; they have honed in their public speaking skills, so they love to travel around the world and give speeches. Others are expert at deity worship; they make flower garlands and offer nice foodstuff to the deity. There are still others who like to quietly meditate and keep the image of Shri Krishna in their hearts.
“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)
As we can see, there is plenty of room for individuality in spiritual life. The path of bhakti - the purified form of work, knowledge, and meditation, and the culmination of all yoga practice - is full of variety. If one sincerely takes to yoga, the linking of the soul with God, they will surely one day be reconnected with the Supreme Lord. Not all paths work as effectively for everyone, but the chanting of Hare Krishna is the quickest and most effective method in this age for allowing the most people to begin their journey towards liberation. One who thinks of God at the time of death never has to return to this temporary and miserable material world, where the presiding deity is maya and the guiding principle is forgetfulness of God. Whatever method we can use to help us escape this mindset is the one we should adopt.