“Then, that most powerful and brave monkey, like the smooth water roamed with ease across the grass that had the hue of a vaidurya stone. That sagacious monkey, like an agitated lion swept aside many deer and other animals, scared away the birds, and crushed down trees with his chest.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 1.3-4)
atha vaiḍūryavarṇeṣu śādvaleṣu mahābalaḥ |
dhīraḥ salilakalpeṣu viccāra yathāsukham
dvijān vitrāsayan dhīmānurasā pādapān haran |
mṛgāṃśca subāhunnighnan pravṛddha iva kesarī
The importance of protecting the environment and its plant life is fairly obvious to those who are cognizant of the role their surroundings play in everyday life. After all, we have to live with the nature around us, for surroundings are what constitute an “environment”. Respect for other forms of life is also in line with piety, as showing concern for nature serves as an outlet for the natural kindness and affection found within the heart. Under the selfish mindset, identification with the gross body, an outer covering for the soul which constantly goes through change, only strengthens. Through acts of sacrifice, penance and charity, one gradually becomes detached from the flawed attachment to their gross senses and current form of body. Yet the mundane rules of piety and virtue are not absolute, for there is a method behind the so-called madness of the prescriptions in spiritual life, religion, or any basic system of right and wrong. Irrespective of the specific activity, the ultimate objective should be to please the Supreme Being, that singular entity who is our life partner. Though He always remains with us, our knowledge of His presence lies behind a dense wall, a thick cloud covering of nescience. Acts of piety and virtue help to dissipate this thick ignorance. But when one ascends to the highest platform of consciousness, even performing those activities which seem sinful on the surface are actually completely in line with the highest cause, and thus free of any negative reaction.
“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.16)
Understanding the limits of piety and sin is a little tricky. Typically, virtue is attached to activities that we are supposed to perform and sin is anything we shouldn’t. If you abide by piety, you will be rewarded in the future, and if you take to sinful life, you will be severely punished. Some preachers will even openly declare that everyone who takes to sin and ignores the desires of a specific spiritual personality will be forced to suffer eternal damnation in hell. “Repent for your sins, or forever suffer for your transgressions!” In actuality, hell and heaven are simply areas with severe temporary conditions resulting from ordinary acts of goodness and ignorance. Piety can be thought of as the right way to do something, so it doesn’t necessarily have to apply to religion. The same holds true for sin. Since the outer covering of the soul is temporary and destined for destruction, no condition that leads to flickering happiness or distress can be taken to be eternal or the final fate of the soul. The individual soul, or atma, remains in existence forever. As such, it is closely tied at the hip to another entity that never perishes: the Supreme Soul, or Paramatma. No action can cause any spiritual entity to die or change in quality.
If there is a defect with the individual atma, it is seen in its travels. Unlike the Paramatma, the jivatma can be cast into the ocean of nescience, where it is forced to repeatedly accept temporary bodies and endure varying degrees of heavenly and hellish life. As mentioned before, piety is simply the right way to perform an activity; an action that leads to the proper and expected outcome or condition. For example, if we are building a house, there is a right way to align the columns, build the walls, and insulate the structure from outside heat and cold. If we follow the prescribed guidelines, the favorable condition of a peaceful, safe, and comfortable living establishment will be had. By the same token, if we fail to act according to the proper path, we will suffer negative effects, the severity of which depends on the magnitude of the deviation. For instance, if we apply paint to one of the walls incorrectly or use the wrong color, this type of sin will lead to an unpleasant sight, but nothing more. However, if we commit a more grievous sin, like not supporting a beam properly, the result can be a disastrous one, such as the collapse of the entire structure and the deaths of those living inside of it.
Following the same pattern, pious acts with a larger scope, such as nonviolence and protection of the environment, lead to favorable conditions for the outer covering of the soul in the future. At the same time, the rules of piety are not absolute, and by adhering to them, we only find temporary positive conditions. Revisiting the house example, if we erect the structure correctly, we get a nice home to live in, but then what? Do our activities end there? Have we achieved success in life? Surely we haven’t, as we’ll have to take on new activities and again subject ourselves to the paradigm of sin and piety. The building of the home is only a small example, but the illustrated principles can be expanded out to all activities pertaining to the embodied, or dehinam.
“The Vedas mainly deal with the subject of the three modes of material nature. Rise above these modes, O Arjuna. Be transcendental to all of them. Be free from all dualities and from all anxieties for gain and safety, and be established in the Self.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.45)
With respect to the protection of the environment, say that we have the most beautiful surroundings, where no trees are ever knocked down and no animals are ever hurt. What will we do after that? Will the mind stop thinking? Do our desires stop? Since individuality is an intrinsic property of the soul, the penchant for activity never ceases. Therefore, to elevate to the highest platform of transcendental existence, one must rise above mundane piety. Caring for other forms of life surely is noble, but activities that deal strictly with temporary bodies do not represent the upper limit of the soul’s engagement. The individual spirit, jivatma, is the functioning unit of the body, so the future well-being of the soul is what really matters.
The argument may be made that if we are to give primary concern to the atma, what is the purpose to the material nature around us? Why are there trees, plants, animals, and an environment in general? Initially, such objects, including the body of the living entity itself, were provided by the Supreme Being, who is known by the name of Krishna in the Vedic tradition, to allow for imitation of the most mature, powerful and sublime activities of the Supreme Lord. One angle of vision takes God as the adult and the individual souls as His children. This viewpoint is invoked here strictly for comparison purposes, as the Lord’s supremacy is so great that nothing can accurately compare to it. But we do see that young children like to imitate their parents, so the analogy works well when describing the desires of the innumerable spiritual sparks emanating from the original source of energy. Since the young children can never take to real adult activities, there must be a playground of sorts created wherein they can feel as if they are acting like adults. Taking the same scenario and applying it to the spiritual world, which is full of children that are always under the care of the Supreme Father, we get an idea of how the material world was born.
More important than understanding when, why or how the world was created is the issue of how to permanently escape from it. Is piety the answer? Is sin the ticket to freedom? The key that unlocks the gate leading out of the material world can be quite easily acquired; provided we change our desires. Once the children lose their interest in imitating the adults, release from the playpen is immediately granted. But reaching that state of selflessness is easier said than done. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India instituted by Krishna, don’t expect every individual to achieve the purification of desire in one lifetime. Therefore piety is recommended as a way to allow for a gradual evolution through higher stages of consciousness, ultimately resulting in a body and a predicament that are most conducive towards achieving liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Though it can take many lifetimes’ worth of pious behavior to gain release from the playground known as the phenomenal world, there is a much simpler way that is flawlessly effective. The same objects that are viewed as the source of personal enjoyment can be used for the pleasure of the Supreme Lord. This is the vision the saints, the celebrated devotees of Krishna, use to survey their surroundings. A simple example often cited by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada can help in this context. Say we are in a shopping mall and we see some money that an unknown fellow shopper has dropped on the ground. The foolish enjoyer, one who wants to imitate God’s powers in the areas of creation, maintenance and destruction, will quickly snatch up the money and think of how to spend it. This money surely doesn’t belong to them, but they have now taken false ownership of it and plan to enjoy it for their own sense pleasure. “You snooze, you lose” is the underlying attitude guiding the gross enjoyer in this situation. On the flip side, one who is prone to renunciation will see the money on the floor and not dare pick it up. It is a grievous sin to take the property of others, for such an act will be the cause of future bondage and a hellish condition. “Better to ere on the side of caution and leave the money alone”, is what they’ll think. Anyway, what will they do with the money, as it is simply a product of material nature that leads to further illusion?
Only the third person, he who picks up the money and returns it to the rightful owner, follows the correct procedure, one that is superior to both personal enjoyment and renunciation. Only with this path will the owner’s property be utilized for their benefit. Obviously, sometimes it’s difficult to find the person who dropped the money, for once it is announced that cash has been found, many people will come forward to claim that it is theirs, but the intention behind the behavior illustrates the proper mindset and the correct course of action to take under all circumstances. Even if we are unable to find the original owner, the sentiment is still correct, and it also gives an indication of how to achieve success in the spiritual sense.
The entire world, with all its plants, trees and animals, belongs to God. Therefore the real path to liberation, one that follows a system of dharma that is above the mundane paradigm of piety and sin, is to use everything for the Lord’s pleasure. The problem is that due to the dense illusion clouding our consciousness, we don’t know where to find God and how to offer anything to Him. It seems that every person has their own God and their own philosophy on life, so how do we know who to trust? As they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the taste”, so the validity of the bona fide path of spirituality expounded by the exalted Vaishnavas, the true authorities on spiritual life, is found in the execution of the recommended actions and their subsequent results. It is not that we have to blindly follow such leaders, but rather, we have to kindly hear what they have to say and then make our own judgments using sound logic and reasoning. Surely there is an element of faith involved, especially in the beginning stages, but then which activity is bereft of trust? We can either put faith into gross materialism, which we know will only lead to flickering happiness and misery, or we can put our trust in the devotees of Krishna who have learned the art of devotional service from their own guru, or spiritual master.
“Therefore, Arjuna, you should always think of Me in the form of Krishna and at the same time carry out your prescribed duty of fighting. With your activities dedicated to Me and your mind and intelligence fixed on Me, you will attain Me without doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.7)
The prescriptions offered by the Vaishnavas are pretty straightforward. “Devote yourselves to God and think of Him at all times. Spend as much time as you can hearing, worshiping, remembering, and offering prayers to the Lord.” Those who make this type of devotion to God their way of life practice the ancient art of bhakti-yoga. As a form of yoga, there is an explicit attempt to link the soul with the Paramatma, but the loving sentiment towards Supreme Spirit actually exists naturally in the soul. There would never have been a desire to imitate God were it not for the intimate relationship that exists between the individual soul and the Supreme Lord. Since bhakti is the ideal consciousness, all impurities from the activities adopted are removed. The divine consciousness automatically brings knowledge of the proper course of action for any and all circumstances.
The descriptions and glorifications of bhakti are full of lofty ideals and promises for future happiness, but how do we actually go about incorporating divine love into our current activities? What are the indications of a purified consciousness? Examples always help, and fortunately for us, the Vedas are filled with vivid illustrations of bhakti in practice. One of the most celebrated bhaktas is Shri Hanuman, the eternal servant of Lord Rama, the jewel of the Raghu dynasty and non-different form of Godhead who roamed this earth many thousands of years ago. In the above referenced passage, Hanuman is embarking on his journey to find the whereabouts of Rama’s missing wife, Sita Devi. A beautiful and shy princess, Sita was taken away from the side of her husband by the Rakshasa demon Ravana while she was residing in the forest with Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana. The two brothers were not with her at the time of her abduction, so they were unaware of her whereabouts.
“Your sinful act of coming to the forest and taking me away from the side of my husband will not result in future happiness for you.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.13)
Rama and Lakshmana eventually forged an alliance with a band of monkeys living in the forest of Kishkindha. Their chief warrior was Hanuman, who after being apprised of his divine powers, took to leaping across the giant ocean that separated the monkey search party from the island of Lanka, where Ravana had taken Sita. From the above passage, we see that Hanuman, who assumed a massive size to make his way across the giant ocean, initially destroyed many trees that were part of the surroundings and scared away animals that were in his path. Based on the rules of mundane piety as they pertain to caring for the environment, this was surely an abominable act. Hanuman, in preparing for his launch off of a mountaintop, essentially blistered the earth by tromping over it. The modern day environmental movement is fueled by the viewpoint that mankind is an evil force responsible for pollution and the destruction of its surroundings. So under this mindset, Hanuman would be labeled as one of the greatest sinners, a person surely worthy of punishment.
But to this day Hanuman remains one of the most widely revered spiritual figures in the world. As mentioned before, all objects of this world, including the pristine surroundings provided by Mother Nature, belong to God. The beautiful property in the form of trees, rivers, parks, and forests have been kindly lent to us for the purpose of rekindling God consciousness. How to go about utilizing everything around us for the pleasure of Krishna is not simply left to a theoretical exercise. True God consciousness can be exhibited in outward symptoms recognized by the nature of the activities that result. As bhakti is akin to transcendental love, the affection for the Supreme Lord must be shown in the activities of the devotee; otherwise the claims of attachment through consciousness are meaningless.
Hanuman, upon meeting Rama, knew that he would dedicate his life to Him. Hanuman validated his eternal allegiance during his brave trek to Lanka, where he would meet and defeat many opposing elements. The fact that he destroyed trees along the way is not a black mark against his character in the least bit. Even the damage inflicted by Hanuman was a sight of beauty, for it was concomitant with the massive size that he assumed to take on the herculean task presented him. Hanuman’s duties required him to battle against some of the toughest evil elements in the world, so he needed to assume a massive size. As a humble servant of the Lord, Hanuman is usually seen in a normal sized stature, one that is purposefully deferent to the glorious and worshipable position of His beloved Shri Rama. But if need be, by making use of his mastery of every mystic perfection, Hanuman can expand himself to an enormous size.
Whether he is offering kind words of advice, killing enemies, humbly approaching Sita, or destroying trees and forests as a result of assuming a massive size, Hanuman is always beautiful. Regardless of the preventative measures we adopt, this earth will ultimately be destroyed, for that is the destiny for anything that is created. The aim should be to act in Krishna’s interests at all times. Such behavior will not only purify our own consciousness, but it will also help everyone around us, including future generations, in their quest for spiritual freedom. When there are evil elements in the world such as Ravana, there is bound to be incidental destruction resulting from the heroic efforts of the servants of Bhagavan. Such action need not be apologized for. Hanuman’s glories know no end, and the beautiful form that made its way to Lanka is something to be celebrated forever and ever.