“…Once upon a time the King of the demons, Hiranyakashipu, took his son Prahlada on his lap and very affectionately inquired: My dear son, please let me know what you think is the best of all the subjects you have studied from your teachers.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.5.4)
With so many texts available for perusal and study in the Vedic tradition, it becomes a little difficult to choose which work to focus attention on. Which book should we take to be our “Bible”, and which ones should we ignore? Indeed, due to the preponderance of information pertaining to the Personality of Godhead generated from the angles of vision of the conditioned eyes, there is the perception that there exists more than one path towards the final destination, the supreme abode reserved for those who have realized the Absolute Truth. When all the seemingly contradictory pieces of information are sorted and studied in a more formal manner, the different roadmaps leading to success can be considered to belong to one of four unique disciplines: bhakti, jnana, yoga and karma. But just as the Absolute Truth is a singular entity, there can only be one dharma, or essential characteristic of the soul, that keeps one connected with Him. There is actually no contradiction between the truths espoused in any of the Vedic texts, for they all reach the same conclusion, that of ultimate surrender to God being the highest discipline in life.
“All purposes that are served by the small pond can at once be served by the great reservoirs of water. Similarly, all the purposes of the Vedas can be served to one who knows the purpose behind them.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.46)
How can Vedic literature and the teachers who champion certain scriptures reach the same conclusion when there are different processes outlined? The most common analogy presented to explain the variety in religious systems stemming from the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, is to that of a school system containing many grades. While information taught to first grade students is vastly different from the instruction provided to those about to graduate high school, the apparent incongruity itself doesn’t invalidate the teachings provided to those in the lower grades. One who can gradually build upon their knowledgebase formed in the beginning stages can come to the point where they are deemed educated enough to enter the real world. In a similar manner, in spiritual life any process besides full and complete surrender unto the Lord, who is a Personality in His original form, merely serves as a gradual, evolutionary endeavor aimed at progressing towards the highest understanding. Even though a karmi [fruitive worker] or jnani [mental speculator] may take the Absolute Truth to be an entity different from what His actual position is, when the angle of vision becomes purified, the same entity will be viewed in the proper light. Regardless of the angle of vision of the person aspiring to understand the Truth, the Personality of Godhead’s position never changes.
Another way to understand the direct connection to the ultimate and proper conclusion found in all the different processes of religion is to study the behavior of one of the most famous devotees in history, Prahlada Maharaja. A king in Vedic terminology is referred to as a raja, so Maharaja means a great authority, one who rules a large subsection of the population. Many millions of years ago, a daitya, one descending from the line of the famous Diti, had amassed great power and was ruling over the earth. Named Hiranyakashipu, this king was demoniac by nature, as this was the trait passed down to him by his mother. Diti and Aditi were two famous sisters, with all of Aditi’s sons having devotional characteristics and Diti’s sons being endowed with demoniac tendencies. Despite his family ancestry and his not-so-stellar character, Hiranyakashipu, through the good work of Narada Muni, had a son who took birth as a devotee. Named Prahlada, this enthusiastic little boy refused to take any system of knowledge to be superior to full and complete surrender unto the Personality of Godhead, who is often addressed as Vishnu or Krishna in the Vedic tradition.
As was the case with any young child in a royal family, Prahlada was made to attend the school of the spiritual master, where he was explicitly trained on governmental affairs. His father was a king after all, so Prahlada was expected to follow in the ruler’s footsteps. But when Prahlada would come home and be asked what he learned in school, he would describe the nine different processes of bhakti-yoga and how they are superior to any other engagement. Hiranyakashipu, an atheist and fully devoted servant of maya, or the illusory energy governing the material world, took Vishnu to be his competitor. When one thinks they have become the foremost entity in the world, they rightfully expect to be worshiped. Hiranyakashipu first of all didn’t like Vishnu because the Lord had previously killed his demoniac brother Hiranyaksha. In addition, the daitya king wanted everyone to worship him instead of the Supreme Lord. Therefore Prahlada’s words were like daggers to his heart. After trying his best to get his son to change his ways, Hiranyakashipu finally decided to have his son killed, as no amount of cajoling could turn the boy’s attention away from Vishnu worship.
The different methods attempted by Hiranyakashipu to slay his son evoked interesting responses from Prahlada. Since the right to life is a natural one, there is also a right to defend that very life. Therefore the act of defending oneself against life-threatening attack does not carry any sin. Yet Prahlada was only five years old, so he had no means to fight off the powerful palace guards and their weapons. Prahlada had studied devotion to Vishnu very well from Narada Muni, who had instructed the boy’s mother while the child was still in the womb. Since Narada was carrying the wonderful message of divine love, the sound vibrations he emitted were able to penetrate into Prahlada’s heart, thus allowing him to have the divine qualities at the time of birth. Knowing well of Lord Vishnu’s promise to protect His devotees, every time the demons would take to attacking him, Prahlada would simply fix his mind on the lotus feet of the Lord. Whether he was thrown into a pit of fire, dropped off the cliff of a mountain, or hurled into the ocean and covered with rocks, Prahlada never broke his concentration on the transcendental realm and the beautiful form of its Master for one second. Not surprisingly, he was therefore able to survive each and every attack.
“Even though a person who has no assets in pious activities performs some good deed, it will have no result. Thus the weapons of the demons had no tangible effects upon Prahlada Maharaja because he was a devotee undisturbed by material conditions and fully engaged in meditating upon and serving the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is unchangeable, who cannot be realized by the material senses, and who is the soul of the entire universe.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.5.41)
We know from the descriptions of these events found in the Shrimad Bhagavatam that throughout the ordeal, Prahlada always thought of Vishnu, prayed to Him, and thus remained devoted to Him without deviation. However, from the perspective of the outsiders, those who don’t understand the divine nature of bhakti and the constitutional makeup of the soul, Prahlada’s behavior can be viewed in different ways. The karmi, one who is attached to fruitive activity, will equate Prahlada’s prayers to those made by the distressed looking for benedictions from the Almighty. Who among us hasn’t prayed to God when we were in trouble? “O Lord, I don’t ask You for much. Can you help me out just this one time? I promise to never ask You for anything again.” Great spiritual leaders around the world who don’t even necessarily follow Vedic teachings preach about the power of prayer and how important it is. Even followers of Vedic tradition can point to the karma-kanda section of the Vedas and the portions within that prescribe demigod worship, or the offering of obeisances to heavenly figures, for procuring material rewards. Under these viewpoints Prahlada appeared to be an ordinary distressed individual looking to God to save his life.
The meditational yogis, those who religiously perform specific gymnastics and breathing exercises aimed at gaining release from attachment to the senses, will view Prahlada as being the greatest yogi. When one practices mysticism properly, wherein the mind is completely focused on the Supersoul residing within the heart and all external elements are blocked off, out-of-body experiences can be easily had. Yogis acquire what are known as siddhis, or perfections. Siddhis allow the yogi to perform miraculous feats, such as increasing and decreasing in stature, holding one’s breath for a long time, and travelling through space while outside of one’s own body. Indeed, a powerful yogi can even enter into another individual’s body and control their thoughts.
Prahlada, by concentrating his mind on God during the attacks from the court henchmen, appeared to be expertly performing yoga. Indeed, in the Vishnu Purana it is described that when Prahlada was lying on the bottom of the ocean under the heaviest rocks that were thrown on top of him, he simply focused his mind on the Supreme Lord residing within his heart. Thus he was able to free himself without a problem and return to shore. Prahlada also regularly spoke about the universal appeal and mercy of the Supreme Lord and how He is the ability in all men. Hiranyakashipu, seeing that Prahlada was unbreakable in his transcendental determination and incapable of being killed by him, asked his son where his amazing powers were coming from, for he was a mere child of five years. Prahlada easily could have responded by invoking the name of Vishnu, Krishna, or the Supreme Lord who was well worshiped by him. Indeed, he could have focused on his own devotional efforts and the great mercy that Vishnu had no doubt shown to him. But Prahlada didn’t go down these avenues. Instead, he answered that the source of his strength was the same as that of his father’s. The weapons used by the palace guards in trying to kill Prahlada also had as their source of power the Supreme Lord. In this way Prahlada accurately pointed out the true nature of the Supersoul, the Paramatma expansion of the Absolute Truth residing within the heart of every living entity. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna confirms that He is the ability in man and the compiler of the ultimate knowledge, or Vedanta.
“I am seated in everyone's heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas am I to be known; indeed I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 15.15)
Those who take meditational yoga, fruitive activity, or impersonal study of the Absolute Truth to be the ultimate engagement in life, though having progressed from the animal mentality inherited at birth, can never understand that the results of activities, spiritual or otherwise, are distributed by the Supersoul, which is a direct copy of Vishnu. Paramatma is not a division, but rather an expansion of the origin of all energy; thus it retains its full capabilities in every instance. The yogi, when viewing Prahlada’s statements pertaining to the equality in strength shared amongst all individuals and witnessing his amazing powers to withstand the severest pain, will take him to be the most powerful mystic, one who has mastered every siddhi. This is also how Shri Hanuman, another brilliant and exalted devotee, is viewed by the yogis who fail to understand the sublime nature of bhakti. Hanuman is the most dear servant of Lord Rama, a warrior prince incarnation of Lord Vishnu who roamed this earth many thousands of years ago. In his service to Rama, Hanuman made use of many yogic siddhis such as the ability to become very large and small. Yet just like Prahlada, Hanuman’s guiding force was divine love, his undying eagerness to please the spiritual senses of the master of all senses, Hrishikesha, which is another name for Vishnu. Those who have not yet reached the platform of intelligence which acknowledges the simultaneous oneness and difference between the individual soul and the Supreme Lord will take Hanuman’s efforts to be merely those of an advanced yogi.
The mental speculators, those who believe the highest Truth to be formless and the material nature of the phenomenal world to be false, will respect Prahlada for his supreme wisdom. “Though his spiritual guides tried to teach him about mundane governmental affairs and how to have success in material life, Prahlada had no interest in this. He was so unattached to the false world around him that he couldn’t be bothered by the attacks of the demons. He had essentially merged into Brahman, the light of the Absolute Truth consisting of all living entities.” The impersonalist speculators will take Prahlada’s behavior to be an indication of the superiority of meditation and the sannyasa order, or the life stage of complete renunciation from worldly affairs.
Though there may be different angles of vision that evaluate Prahlada’s behavior, the ultimate conclusion driving his thoughts, ideas and desires does not change. Prahlada himself declares that bhakti-yoga, or devotion to Vishnu, is the most important activity. Whether his behavior bears similarities to karma, jnana or meditational yoga is not relevant to the discussion because the guiding force to his activity was his knowledge that complete, loving service to the Supreme Lord is the only worthy engagement in life. Vishnu Himself validated Prahlada’s firm belief in Him by later appearing on the scene in a half-man/half-lion named Narasimhadeva to kill Hiranyakashipu. When Narasimhadeva was bifurcating Hiranyakashipu on his lap, Prahlada, instead of protesting, offered his beloved Lord, the person who had saved him from calamity after calamity, a garland as a way to thank Him for appearing on the scene.
Prahlada had no desire to survive attacks, perform feats of yoga, or escape the clutches of the temporary world. He simply wanted to always remain connected in thought, word and deed with Vishnu. In the same way, all the authorized Vedic scriptures, those works descending from the original Vedas and which expound on the same original teachings, ultimately reach the same conclusion and provide the same descriptions of the Absolute Truth. Even the Bhagavad-gita, which is the most concise, complete and authorized of all the celebrated Vedic texts, touches on many subjects that don’t seem to have any relation to bhakti. The Bhagavad-gita is so complete in education that many non-devotees in the form of scholars, religionists and miscreants alike have taken to reading this book and putting forth their own theories as to what can be taken away from Krishna’s instructions.
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.66)
There is really no reason for the mystery or confusion surrounding the true meaning behind the wonderful words of advice given on that famous day a long time ago on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The ultimate conclusion of the Gita is stated by Krishna Himself when He advises Arjuna, His cousin and disciple, to simply surrender unto Him and be absolved of all sin. Surrender is not simply a declaration of faith or the performance of a specific ritual. It is a shift in consciousness brought on by dedication to constitutional activities, those which correspond directly with the natural properties of the soul, or one’s dharma. Prahlada and Hanuman exhibited the attitude of divine surrender in their behavior, not just their speech. They were always Krishna conscious, so they naturally achieved all the perfections brought on by the performance of other processes of religion such as fruitive activity and mental speculation. Whether one chooses to focus on reading the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Shrimad Bhagavatam, or a celebrated Purana, the ultimate conclusion of surrender unto God is always present. One has to have the proper eyes acquired through humble submission to a bona fide spiritual master to see how all the pieces of information tie together. Only when one takes to the sublime engagement of devotional service will everything in this world make sense and be seen in its proper relation to the fountainhead of all things matter and spirit, Shri Krishna.