"O best of men, what is the use of Your destroying the entire world? After finding out Your sinful enemy, you should uproot him alone." (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.21)
The wise never act on whims. Rather, they carefully study the results of potential actions and then decide whether the reward is worth the effort and the risk associated with the undertaking. Every action carries some risk to it, even something as simple as standing up. This is because every action performed on the material platform has a commensurate reaction. The fruits of action, karma-phalam, sometimes manifest immediately, while at other times they come to us in a future life. There is risk in every action because the results of our karma are unknown to us, and sometimes the results don’t last very long. Thus we never know exactly what might happen when we take on a certain task. To decide what should be done and what shouldn’t, we must carefully study the desired result and then also evaluate whether the resulting fruit is worth having.
So far this sounds somewhat cryptic, so let’s look at a few real life examples to gain a clearer understanding. The issue of violence is often discussed amongst the intelligentsia. The issue itself is quite polarizing, for people immediately jump to one side or the other. Some believe that violence is never necessary. They see the wars going on around them and just scratch their heads. “Why would young men want to kill one another? What is to be gained? Why can’t people just get along in peace? If one side were to commit themselves to nonviolence, then the rest of the world would soon follow.” The immediate results of violent action are easily perceptible. Violence, in its relation to war, leads to death, which signals the end of the current body’s material efforts. When someone dies, they no longer have the opportunity to take actions aimed at satisfying their senses. All ties of affection are immediately relinquished and the friends and family of the departed are left to mourn. Based on these negative consequences, we can understand why many people would be so opposed to violence.
In the paradigm of warfare, the people perpetrating the violence are hoping to achieve the end-goal of victory. Victory signals the defeat of the enemy, with their will to fight being removed. Surrender from the other side then hopefully leads to a peaceful condition for the victors, an end to hostilities. On the flip side, there are those who are in favor of nonviolence. The result of nonviolence is the absence of warfare. When there isn’t war, there will be peace. At the same time, however, aggressors will be let off the hook for any nefarious activity. For example, if one side wants to wage war in order to gain control over a certain tract of land, if the other side chooses nonviolence, naturally the aggressive side will claim victory and take the land for themselves. In this scenario, nonviolence, though saving lives, results in surrender, with the enemy taking over land that might not rightfully belong to them.
So which side does morality come down on? Are the proponents of war correct in believing that victory is a noble enough goal to make violence worth it? Or are the pacifists correct in asserting that the lack of violence makes surrendering worthwhile? In order to make a rational judgment in any situation, we have to evaluate the fruits of action. So far we have established what the fruits of action will be in both cases, but we haven’t ascribed any merit or demerit to them.
So how do we rate results? This material world is full of dualities. One person may enjoy spicy food, while another person may abhor it. One person may prefer the winter months due to the cold weather, while another person may enjoy the summer months for the bright sunshine and warm temperatures. How do we decide which viewpoint is correct? Is this even possible? It seems like everyone has different desires, and thus we see so many different kinds of work performed. Is there really a way to judge which action is virtuous and which isn’t?
“Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on the earthly planets; and those in the mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.18)
According to the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, there is actually an easy way to decide whether a particular action should be performed or not. What has been described thus far is guna and karma. Guna is a Sanskrit word which refers to material qualities. Each living entity possesses a body composed of a combination of the three gunas of material nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance. In addition, every fruitive activity we perform, or karma, can also be filed under one of these three modes. When rating karmic activity, we usually associate pious acts as those which bring about “good” karma-phalam, or fruitive results. These activities fall under the mode of goodness. If we perform activities in the mode of goodness, we further the position of the material body, both in this life and in future ones. For example, if we faithfully study the Vedas and perform various sacrifices, we will ascend to the heavenly planets in the afterlife. Upon reaching this realm, one is given a heavenly body which allows them to enjoy a thousand times more than they can on earth.
The mode of passion brings about neutral results. For example, working hard simply for the acquisition of money and wealth can be thought of as an act of neutrality. Money is certainly required to maintain our lifestyle, but it quickly runs out, thus forcing us to repeat the cycle of work again. The mode of passion eventually leads to a neutral state in the afterlife. If a living entity is currently in a human body, through action in the mode of passion, they remain in an earthly body in the next life.
The mode of ignorance can be equated with “bad” karma. What we would characterize as “stupid” behavior is what the mode of ignorance consists of. Unnecessarily killing others, stealing, sleeping too much, constant intoxication, etc., all lead to demotion to a lower species in the next life. Thus one should avoid the mode of ignorance at all costs.
“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)
So it seems like we have the issue resolved. Simply act in the mode of goodness, and everything will be okay. Ah, but there is a catch. Though action in the mode of goodness leads to a heavenly body in the afterlife, one’s time in heaven is limited. Upon exhaustion of our good merits, we are forced to descend back to earth and go through the entire life cycle again. Goswami Tulsidas, the great devotee of Lord Rama, remarks that it is heard that after enjoying such great opulence in the heavenly kingdom, a person forgets about the time factor and their mortality. In this way, by becoming overly puffed up with pride and material enjoyment, knowledge of the truth gets covered up. Upon returning to earth, we’ll again have to deal with the issue of deciding what action should be performed and what shouldn’t. Those who possess a higher understanding of nature thus realize that even the mode of goodness leads to a neutral state. In this way, all activity of this material world can be considered equal in a sense, since the results of such action are only temporary.
“The branches of this tree extend downward and upward, nourished by the three modes of material nature. The twigs are the objects of the senses. This tree also has roots going down, and these are bound to the fruitive actions of human society.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 15.2)
So does this mean that we all should do whatever we want because it doesn’t matter in the end? Beyond the material nature is a spiritual nature. Though the spiritual nature is free of gunas, or material qualities, there are still activities performed within it. Spirituality is full of variegatedness. The material world is simply a perverted reflection of the purified realm. The various actions and reactions of material life can be thought of as emanating from a tree which has its roots upwards. This inverted situation is the result of the perverted reflection. The spiritual world contains the actual tree, the purified version of activity and enjoyment. This means that our real business is to take up spiritual activities, those actions which transcend the modes of material nature. Why is it important to rise above the three modes of material nature? As mentioned before, when deciding on whether a particular action should be taken, we need to study both the desired result and its importance. So what are the results of taking to spiritual activity? Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, states that anyone who acts towards pleasing Him, i.e. doing those things which will make God happy, will never have to take birth again. Such devotees will ascend immediately to Krishna’s spiritual realm after death. In this way, spiritual activity brings about the highest gain.
So what constitutes spiritual activity? In addition, does this mean that all the activities we are accustomed to performing are stupid? Sannyasis, or those in the renounced order of life, are often attached with this stigma of having a pessimistic outlook on life. The Vedas recommend that a person gradually progress through four spiritual stages, or ashramas, over the course of their lifetime. Sannyasa is the fourth and final stage where one completely renounces all ties to material life and sincerely engages in serving God. Service to God is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. It involves many different processes such as chanting, hearing, remembering, and offering prayers.
A person who is in the renounced order of life will naturally look at material activity as being second class. They will see people engaging in activities like drinking, gambling, and eating meat and think that such people are simply wasting their time. A bona fide sannyasi is a pure devotee of Krishna, so they don’t simply criticize people for engaging in mundane activity; they view everything with respect to Krishna. A pure devotee puts forth suggestions on what should be done to correct improper behavior. An example of this benevolence was seen with Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama.
Many thousands of years ago, during the Treta Yuga, Lord Krishna incarnated on earth as Lord Rama, a valiant warrior prince, the eldest son of the King of Ayodhya. As part of His pastimes, Rama spent fourteen years in the forest, living as a vanaprasthi with His wife Sita Devi and younger brother Lakshmana. Vanaprastha is the ashrama right before sannyasa, and it is the stage where a person leaves their home and travels around with their wife, living off very little. What’s ironic is that when Rama left for the forest, He had only been married for twelve years and thus wasn’t necessarily ready for vanaprastha. The mendicant lifestyle was forced upon Him as a result of a request put forth by His step-mother Kaikeyi.
Nevertheless, God is the ultimate renunciate, so He had no problem roaming around like a hermit for fourteen years. Unfortunately, during the exile period, Sita would be kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana while Rama and Lakshmana were not by her side. Returning to their cottage, Rama saw that Sita was missing and gave way to lamentation. It is the duty of every husband to protect their wife under any and all circumstances. There is a great responsibility that comes with marriage; it is not simply a license to have sex. In the Vedic tradition, every institution and regulation is intended to provide spiritual wisdom and act as a gradual progression towards the end-goal of Krishna consciousness. Though Rama was God, He was playing the part of a human being, so He abided by all the Vedic samskaras, or reformatory processes.
When He saw that Sita was missing, Rama felt bad for several reasons. First, He loved Sita very much. That is the beauty of the relationship between God and His devotees. The devotees abandon all desires for worldly enjoyment and take exclusively to devotional service. The Lord, for His part, becomes beholden to the devotees through a bond of deep affection. Sita, being an incarnation of the goddess of fortune, was an exceptional devotee and a representation of Krishna’s pleasure potency, hladini-shakti. Rama cannot live without Sita, and Sita cannot live without Rama. Even in separation, the two are always thinking of each other.
Rama was also disappointed because He had failed to protect His wife. God can never fail in providing protection, but Rama was playing the part of a human being and thus acting like someone who commits mistakes from time to time. What did Rama do next? First, He started wandering through the neighboring woods, asking all the trees and flowers if they had seen Sita. His sadness then quickly turned to anger. The sweet and gentle Lord decided He would destroy the whole world as revenge for its allowing Sita to be kidnapped. At this moment, Lakshmana stepped in to offer some sound words of advice.
Though a younger brother, Lakshmana too was a perfect devotee and thus not afraid to offer His service to God. It is the natural mentality of the dependents to ask for service from their superiors. We often pray to God to do certain things for us. The devotees are a little advanced, and as such, they look for any opportunity to give service to the Lord. In Lakshmana’s case, seeing his brother in a precarious condition presented an opportunity to offer something worthwhile to Rama. What was the nature of Lakshmana’s service? He simply repeated sound words of advice that Rama had offered to him on many previous occasions. He reminded Rama that one should be steady in the execution of their prescribed duties, no matter the result. Even if Sita were dead, it would not be cause for lamentation because every person in life must meet both good and bad fortune.
In the above referenced quote, Lakshmana is asking what would be gained by destroying the world. Killing every living entity certainly wouldn’t bring Sita back, so the intended result itself was flawed. Lakshmana advised Rama to find out who took Sita and to then destroy them. The results of such activity would be the deserved punishment of the enemy and the hopeful rescue of Sita. Thus the intended results were in accordance with what Rama wanted. Moreover, by rescuing Sita, Rama would be performing His prescribed duties as a husband and prince. The Lord very much appreciated Lakshmana’s counsel, and in the end, He would do exactly what Lakshmana advised. Ravana would be found and defeated in battle, and Sita would be rescued.
We should apply the same criteria prior to taking up any activity. We should ask ourselves a series of questions. “What will the result of this action be? Is the result even something that I want? Can I choose a different course of action and achieve a more beneficial result?“ Luckily for us, we know that our ultimate objective is reconnecting with God, thus we can juxtapose the results of all activities with the ultimate result of returning back home, back to Godhead. For instance, if we apply this criterion towards the violence issue, we’d see that meat eating is completely unnecessary. Simply to satisfy the taste buds, we are sending innocent cows by the millions to the slaughterhouses each year. The positive result of satisfaction to our taste buds is short-lasting and also cancelled out by the negative reactions to our violence. In addition, meat eating does nothing to bring us closer to God.
Lord Rama, however, took to violence and was acting completely in line with dharma, or occupational duty. This is the easiest way to decide what our course of action should be. Each of us has prescribed duties to perform according to our qualities. If we perform these activities with detachment and, at the same time, engage in devotional service, our lives will be perfect. The highest gain in life is to have association with God and His devotees, so all our activities should be performed with this goal in mind.