Friday, January 21, 2011

Visible Benefits

!B-Ql7jQBmk~$(KGrHqF,!h0EzLZUTCRiBM8PF2DRWw~~_3 “One who restrains his senses and fixes his consciousness upon Me is known as a man of steady intelligence.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.61)

In the realm of politics, the concept of visible beneficiaries and invisible victims applies to the practice of direct government involvement aimed at alleviating a perceived distressful economic situation. It is the nature of many constituents to look to the higher authorities in charge of crafting public policy to solve their problems. While it is certainly a good practice to try to help those who are in trouble, problems arise from the fact that entities not directly benefited by the seemingly kind acts of politicians are often negatively affected when help arrives. After all, the government doesn’t earn any money; it collects all of its income through taxes and fees. Therefore in order to “help” anyone, the powers that be need to dip into the coffers which are so kindly filled up by forced donations from the general public. Ironically enough, the concept of visible benefits and invisible harmful effects actually reverses in the area of spirituality, thus making the discipline of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, very difficult to adopt for those whose eyes aren’t trained to see things properly. Upon careful analysis, however, we’ll see that the invisible benefits of the sublime engagement of connecting with the Supreme Spirit are well worth whatever visible harmful effects one must endure.

The bailout of a fledgling company is the quintessential act of government benevolence aimed at alleviating a perceived problem. You have one company that manufactures a product and thus maintains a large workforce. When said profit-seeking entity starts to lose money due to a poor business model, lack of customers or a high overhead, they will look to anyone or anything to help them escape trouble. The government is the ideal savior in this scenario, for they are the only entity legally allowed to use force to enact their wishes. Indeed, the government decides what behavior is legal and what is not. But lobbying government officials is not easy; there must be a benefit to the politician. For the business looking for a bailout, the benefit to the politician is the saving of jobs, for this is the most visible benefit any government official can provide to their constituents. Though the exact details of the hypothetical scenario can vary, the general course of action followed by the politician is to rescue the struggling company by giving them financial aid in the form of millions of dollars. Those who oppose such action will be cast as cruel-hearted and mean. After all, who could be against such a visible benefit as saving jobs, which sometimes can number in the thousands? The affected workers have their own families that need to be fed and mortgage payments that need to be made. Why would anyone want to stand in the way of helping people in need?

Capital building Though the justifications for direct government intervention seem obvious enough, the other side of the equation is rarely considered. As the famous saying goes, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, there is no such thing as a bailout without negative consequences. As previously mentioned, government is financed by taxes which are collected through the threat of force. If someone perpetually fails to pay their taxes, they will be sent to jail. Taxation and the force applied to collect the related funds are completely justified behavior provided the government adheres to its dictates. The first principle of good governance is that the ruling entity must protect all citizens equally. Every individual may have their own wishes, desires, friends and well-wishers, but since the government is to govern all of the people, it cannot play favorites. In order to apply its forces equally, a government must protect innocent life and property. Following this simple formula, a government stays in the good graces of the people and doesn’t incur any sin by exacting taxes.

In the typical bailout example, the fact that only a single company is benefitted immediately breaks the rule of impartiality. But aside from the moral implication, there are also victims to such action, though they may not always be readily identifiable. Since the bailout is funded through taxation, the money belonging to other citizens must be used for an interest that they don’t necessarily agree with. Say that the struggling company is in the business of selling cars. In a free society, goods and services are exchanged peaceably and voluntarily. As such, if a citizen wants to buy a car, no one can force them to buy from a certain dealership or pay a certain amount. The struggling car company obviously wasn’t very effective at selling cars in this peaceful system. Even if they were, their business model was flawed to the point that they failed to earn a profit. This means that they didn’t utilize their resources efficiently.

Through the government bailout, the taxpayers become the invisible victims, for their money is now used to fund companies that they didn’t deem worthy of their patronage to begin with. In addition, the same taxpayer money could have been returned to the citizen, who would in turn use it to support a company that created a superior product, or one that was produced through a wise utilization of resources. Though the example of the bailout may initially only create a small number of victims, the future implications are even worse, for the struggling company has learned nothing about how to turn a profit, allocate resources properly, or create a product that others are willing to buy. What they have learned is that if you are in trouble running a business where making a profit is the primary objective, you can successfully lobby the government to save you by dangling visible beneficiaries in front of them.

The practice of bailing out fledgling companies and ignoring invisible victims is simply a byproduct of the illusion that envelops the material world. Illusion starts at the time of birth, where the newly born living entity immediately identifies with their body. The outer covering is constantly changing, so much so that the body of an adult-aged individual is completely different from the one possessed by a young child. The false identification further leads the living entity astray by causing them to take sense gratification and the interests of the body, a form which is destined for destruction, to be paramount.

Lord Krishna These issues combined together greatly decrease the likelihood that one will take to the only discipline that seeks to benefit the soul and its Supreme Master. This sublime engagement is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Only in the temporary and perishable realm is there even a word such as “bhakti”. In the spiritual sky, all activities are dovetailed with loving service to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Since in the spiritual world there is no contamination or any activities rooted in illusion, there are no distinctions made between activities. There is no difference between body and spirit in the eternal realm where Krishna lives; everything there falls under the umbrella of bhakti. Only in the presence of illusion can there be any activities which are not dedicated to Krishna’s pleasure.

If everything is so wonderful in the spiritual world, why are we enveloped by illusion right now? Why do we attach ourselves to that which is not, i.e. the body? Greatness in any area of endeavor must deal with both extremes of excellence. For the spiritual realm to be so sublime there must also be a realm which is a shadow copy, i.e. a place full of illusion. The existence of both areas speaks to Krishna’s complete nature, where His personal side secures bliss to His associates and His impersonal and separated aspects fail to bring about supreme pleasure. When the soul desires to imitate God and surpass Him in the areas of creation, maintenance and destruction, a temporary and perishable realm must be created. The world we currently inhabit can be thought of as a giant playpen for children. When a group of children are placed into one playing area, there are bound to be ups and downs, highs and lows, friendships and enmity. When a person turns into an adult, however, they no longer desire to remain in the playpen. The catch with the material world, however, is that the time factor constantly works to diminish whatever gains are made as it pertains to the body and mind. As such, if at the time of death we haven’t realized the illusion and the flaw in playing God, we will be forced to repeat the cycle again in the next life.

“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.6)

Lord KrishnaGaining release from the cycle of reincarnation is quite simple; we must change our desires. But since illusion leads to a false identification, knowledge of the necessity to shift our desires also remains clouded. Therefore in order to gain release, we must take to activities which slowly but surely remove that illusion. These activities belong to the category of bhakti, wherein the spirit soul aims to satisfy the Supreme Spirit, the one person who never falls victim to illusion. The quintessential act of bhakti is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Bhakti, when practiced properly and regularly, brings full retraction from all negative activities. A harmful activity is anything which leads to an unfavorable future condition. By definition, any activity performed off the bodily concept bears this property.

Since it is not possible to make bhakti our full-time occupation in the beginning stages, dedication to simultaneous retraction is required. Renunciation from the most harmful activities - those which not only serve to keep the cloud of ignorance fully embodied, but actually further augment its influence - must be practiced. The great Vedic seers, the saints of the past who always remained committed to bhakti, have grouped the most harmful sinful activities into four categories: meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex.

Lord Krishna Glancing at these four restrictions for the first time will certainly bring a chuckle to those deluded by the workings of nature. These activities are not only practiced by the majority of the world’s population, but they are a staple of everyday life, a mainstay of what is deemed enjoyable. Due to this situation, taking to bhakti has an attached stigma of bringing the most visible of negative effects. The conditioned soul will think, “If I take to bhakti, I essentially have to give up fun. No drinking? No gambling? What am I going to do with my time? I will be bored out of my mind and completely miserable.” The invisible benefit to this system is the soul’s promotion to the spiritual realm in the afterlife. Yet as we saw with the example of the bailout, the invisible aspect to the activity will almost always lose out to the visible aspect. If we were to put the attention given to the visible portion on one end of a seesaw and the attention paid to the invisible portion on another, the visible aspect would always remain firmly grounded.

“After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.19)

These factors make the bhakti lifestyle very difficult to adopt. It is precisely for this reason that Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, states in the Bhagavad-gita that it takes many lifetimes for one to even endeavor for self-realization. And among those who make a sincere effort at spiritual perfection, hardly one will succeed. We can be aided in the process by understanding that the perceived visible negative effects aren’t harmful at all. Happiness is a state of mind, a condition where hankering and lamenting, the two primary products of the conditioned consciousness, are in balance. By chanting on a regular basis, retraction is simultaneously accomplished. The aim of bhakti is to change one’s consciousness; hence bhakti-yoga is often translated to mean Krishna consciousness.

Lord Krishna When one’s mindset is fixed on Krishna by constantly chanting His names, hearing His pastimes and activities, and worshiping His deity, renunciation from sinful activity is wholly established. During the other times of the day, by refraining from the four sinful activities, the mind will actually be extremely benefitted. When bhakti as a whole is practiced properly, the invisible benefits become visible. Surely the soul will be transported to the spiritual world after death, but when one is constantly thinking about Krishna and remembering His glorious nature, happiness and peace of mind are achieved while in the present body. The purest of devotees are described as being completely spiritual, for the illusion that surrounds the newborn child has been completely removed. It is not surprising to see such people take to teaching others out of their causeless mercy. By following the examples of the eternally liberated souls and remaining fixed on the only path that leads to the highest benefit for all of humanity, we can one day realize the visible benefit of meeting the Supreme Lord face to face and remaining in His company at all times.