“Real independence is to be reinstated in the service of the Lord. Anyone who goes to the Vaikuntha planets or Goloka Vrindavana planet is freely offering his service to the Lord. That is complete independence.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.9.35 Purport)
There is a beauty in actually owning something, especially those items procured through hard work, determination and resolve. Though a famous song says, “the best things in life are free”, when something is purchased through hard earned money, it is assigned a higher value by the owner. Those items gifted to us can be more easily discarded since there was no emotional investment or attachment to begin with. On the other hand, those objects we pay for bring a burden of responsibility, a need to at least get our money’s worth by making a proper utilization of the investment. For the individual stuck in the endless mire of material existence known as samsara, salvation can be easily granted by the Supreme Divine Being. But superior to just being given blanket rescue from all our troubles is earning our way out of misery and into the light of true freedom, for this will secure the most blissful feeling. The Supreme Lord, as the best friend of every living entity, could attempt to compel others to love Him, but in the resulting situation there would be no happiness and no claim to ownership of salvation on the jiva’s part. For these reasons the path of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, remains the only roadmap that provides a lasting benefit, one that can be wholly owned and appreciated by the person who earned it.
Let’s say that we have a book we want to sell. A physical book will cost money to produce, as printing, binding and shipping costs are incurred with each sale. For the producer and the promoter, giving the book away for free is certainly an option, one where all the costs for production are soaked up. On the other hand, the same book can be sold for a nominal fee. Under this model the distribution won’t be as high, as the introduction of price will filter out many more prospective readers. The two scenarios, one where the book is given away for free and the other where the book is sold for a price, result in a variation in cost and profit and also a difference in behavior for the recipients. The free book may sit around in the house for years and years without being opened. There was no initial investment made by the buyer; he didn’t have to work difficult hours at his job in order to afford the book, nor did he ever have to make a choice between purchasing and not purchasing. The free book was accepted because there was no covenant established between the seller and the buyer; no obligation was incurred through the exchange.
One who pays for the book, however, will be much more inclined to read it, as there was some investment made, even if the cost was nominal. Another way to understand the same point is to see what results when a particular television program or series is explicitly purchased versus it coming on television without any extra effort. The major professional sports leagues all have contracts with various networks to have the important games each season broadcast across the country on national television. In addition, each local franchise has their own agreements with specific channels in the local market. If a person living in New York is a fan of the sports franchise in Los Angeles and owns a basic television subscription package, the only way for them to see their favorite team play is if the New York team happens to play the Los Angeles team or if the Los Angeles game is televised nationally. Both cases are very rare, as east coast teams don’t play west coast teams very often, and games are seldom aired on national television for a specific team until the playoffs.
Due to advancements in modern technology and the abundance of television channels, a fan living in an out-of-market city can now watch all of their favorite team’s games by purchasing a specific sports subscription package with their cable or satellite provider. As such, instead of maybe seeing five or six regular season games with their normal programming subscription, the fan can now watch every game. What’s interesting to note is that as soon as the premium package is purchased, an immediate obligation is created. Now that money has been spent, which is no small amount either, the buyer will want to make good use of their investment by watching as many games as possible. Not only are their favorite team’s games now shown all the time, but so is every game played in the entire league of the sport in question. Before the package was purchased, maybe certain games would be glossed over and not cared about. Even if the favorite team was on television, if they weren’t having a good season or if the game didn’t matter that much, the fan wouldn’t watch it. But now in the mind of the viewer every game has to be watched in order to justify the purchase.
In the realm of spirituality, the search for salvation is likely the most common reason for people turning towards God. They want an end to the misery that is born of endless desires, feelings which constantly rush in like the waves of a river pouring into an ocean. The Supreme Lord, the only eternal entity who is never capable of falling into the pit of material existence, could easily save the fallen soul looking for rescue, but salvation in the true sense of the word is a little more complicated than simply becoming absolved of sins and being transported to a heavenly realm. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, define each infinitesimally small spirit soul wandering through the various universes in ever-changing bodies as a jiva. The Supreme Soul, or God, is described as Brahman, or Parabrahman. The phenomenal world, or matter, is described as maya, or that which is not Brahman.
“The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal, fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.7)
The term “jiva” has meaning that can be properly understood once the properties of Parabrahman and His energies are considered. God’s internal energy expands into other spiritual entities, fragmental parts that are similar in quality to the original storehouse of energy. The Supreme Lord is often compared to the giant sun, with His internal energy manifestations representing different rays of the original solar powerhouse. Maya is an illusory force, one that is considered God’s separated energy. Though every force created by the Supreme Spirit is part of Him, because maya is considered separated, it is not worshipable. As a correlation, the hands and feet are part and parcel of the body, but in order to feed ourselves food must be supplied to the stomach. If we offer food to our feet, nothing will happen for the body, as the nutrients in the food will never enter the internal system of the body. In a similar manner, one can offer worship to maya all they want, but there will not be any tangible benefit derived. Everything is in God, but He is not directly inside of every object. The blade of grass is part of the definition of God, but we cannot pick up some grass and say that we hold God in our hands.
The jivas are considered the marginal energy. Qualitatively they are the same as the internal energy, but they are considered marginal because they have a choice as to which energy to associate with, internal or external. The strictly internal expansions are non-different from the Lord. Hence the various incarnations of the Supreme Spirit, such as Vishnu, Rama and Narasimha, are equally as worshipable as the original Lord, who is known as Krishna in the Vedic tradition, the all-attractive and beautiful Shyamasundara. The jivas are always marginal, as that is their makeup. If one makes the proper choice and remains forever in the company of Krishna, they can be considered eternally liberated, but the option for separation is always there even when not exercised.
A valid concern may be raised as to why the Supreme Spirit, if He is so powerful, doesn’t just keep the jivas in His company, regardless of the choices they make. Maya is transient after all, for the world we live in constantly goes through cycles of creation and destruction. One who becomes attached to something nonpermanent will surely suffer heartache and misery. Knowing this to be the case, Krishna could just keep the jivas always by His side and shield them from the misery that results from association with maya.
Yet just as Krishna is ever independent and full of energy, so the jivas have free will and independence, though in a minute quantity, in their exercise of activity. The most potent emotion in the perverted reflection that is the material world is love, or the voluntary offering of service to other entities. Similarly, in the spiritual world, Krishna-prema, or deep love and affection brought on by total surrender, or sharanagati, is the highest emotion and most potent spiritual force. For love to be considered valid, it must exist at peak levels in both parties, and the relationship that results must be voluntarily entered into. If the jivas were forced to love Krishna, the sanctity of the resulting relationship would be tainted.
Moreover, when love is forced, the receiver doesn’t properly appreciate the services rendered, similar to how the person being offered something for free later tosses the gift aside. Yet when love for God is developed through the steady practice of bhakti-yoga, whose quintessential activity is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, the loving service is appreciated fully on both ends. The path to salvation is kindly provided by Krishna in His wonderful discourse on philosophy, religion and the meaning of life known as the Bhagavad-gita. In this concise yet complete treatise on Vedic philosophy, Krishna states that anyone who thinks of Him at the time of death will immediately return to the spiritual land, the eternal abode of the Personality of Godhead. One who goes there never has to leave.
To guarantee that these thoughts occur at the end of life, a shift in consciousness is required. A new way to think can’t be found at the drop of a hat. Our primary thoughts and desires can only be altered through a shift in behavior. Therefore the recommended practices of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, which revolve around hearing and chanting, result in a gradual shift in consciousness, a state of mind where all thoughts during the day are focused on Krishna and His satisfaction. Such a religious practice is much more potent than a simple pledge of faith or periodic visit to a house of worship. Any tool that can help further purify consciousness should be accepted, and anything which keeps us from thinking of Krishna in a loving way should be rejected.
The spiritual masters, the acharyas who have kept the bhakti tradition alive for so many years, regularly practiced the devotional formula and saw tremendous success. One who actually makes the necessary effort will feel satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Though Krishna resides in the spiritual world, He kindly accompanies the jiva from life to life by also residing within their heart as the Supersoul. As such, the relationship forged with the Supreme Spirit can be considered special and unique to each individual, as even the transcendental mellows, or rasas, can vary from person to person. The commonality in all the relationships with Krishna is the ownership, the purchasing of the Lord’s association and affection through selfless acts of transcendental love.
“…the word pavarga signifies our struggle for existence and our meeting with defeat, exhaustion, bondage, fearfulness and, at last, death. Apavarga means that which can nullify all of these material conditions. Krishna is said to be the giver of apavarga, the path of liberation.” (Shrila Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 59)
The Vedas equate salvation to receiving apavarga, or the removal of defeat, exhaustion, fear, bondage and death. Though Krishna can specifically take away each of these unwanted elements, they are carefully rooted out one by one through steady practice of bhakti. In one sense, Krishna is the doer of all activities and the distributor of every result, but the Divine actions can’t be instigated unless and until there is a sincere desire to associate with the Lord. If we simply call out for salvation but at the same time remain wholly fixed on material association, giving our life and soul to maya’s allures, there is no purpose for Krishna’s intervention. This type of plea is similar to calling a repair man to fix a broken appliance, not paying them after the work is done, and then following the same pattern of behavior that led to the problem in the first place.
Divine love easily brings apavarga, but the pure devotees desire much more than salvation. They want Krishna’s association at all times, irrespective of circumstance and place. Maharishi Valmiki accurately notes that the devotees of Lord Rama, a personal expansion of Shri Krishna, see the Lord everywhere holding His illustrious bow and arrow. Even though the bhakta follows all the rules and regulations of spiritual life and adheres to the perfunctory rituals aimed at advancing consciousness, there is still no end-goal or desire for personal reward. Salvation is actually just the beginning, as once ownership of Krishna’s association is acquired, the joys felt from seeing His beautiful face and hearing the sound of His wonderful flute only elicit even more transcendental activity, engagements which never fail to bring tremendous pleasure.