“The Absolute Truth is the objective of devotional sacrifice, and it is indicated by the word sat. These works of sacrifice, of penance and of charity, true to the absolute nature, are performed to please the Supreme Person, O son of Pritha.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 17.26-27)
“Why are they bowing down in front of that statue? Why are their heads shaved, and why do they keep repeating the same chant?” Surely these questions will arise when observing the behavior of a worshiper belonging to the Vedic tradition, one following the ancient art of bhakti, or divine love. In any closed circle, unknown behavior and concepts will appear foreign, strange, or unusual. But as more information is gathered, the appreciation and understanding of different cultures and behavior increases. Indeed, after further background information is provided, the meaning behind the practices witnessed in the scene with the humble servant offering their obeisances in the temple can be understood and made use of.
Let’s cover a hypothetical situation to see how zooming out of a scene, stepping outside of a narrow vision, can help us gain a clearer picture. Let’s say that through whatever lens we are observing we can see a man sitting down. At first all we can see is his head and his body; thus we come to the conclusion that he is in a seated position. Every few moments, he seems to turn his head back and forth, sort of like a pendulum. Sometimes the head turn is followed by a sigh indicating despondency, and other times there is elation and joy, where he pumps his fists and jumps up because he is so happy. From this behavior we can deduce that maybe the man is watching something. Our assumptions notwithstanding, since we lack any further information of the scene, the behavior of the man still appears quite strange to us.
Now let’s zoom out a little bit. By expanding the scope of vision, we see that there are other people situated around this man, and they are behaving in a similar manner. They too seem to be turning their heads back and forth periodically, with their eyes attentively focused on a particular object of interest. When we zoom out even more, we are able to see many people seated in a network of seats, perfectly aligned rows, almost as if they are spectators at an event. With another expansion of the window of vision we see a young man who is not standing; his behavior is different from the spectators. Because of the viewpoint we currently have, all we can see is the back portion of this stranger’s body, which shows that he is wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers. He periodically runs back and forth across a line, but sometimes he stops. It is now apparent that the spectators are there to watch this person do whatever he is doing.
If we pan the lens out a few more times, we’ll eventually see that the scene we have been observing the whole time is a stadium hosting a tennis match. The spectators are keeping their eyes on the tennis ball which travels from one side of the court to the other. The player is not simply running for the fun of it; he is chasing after a ball hit by the opposing player. The behavior of the spectators that was originally considered strange now makes sense, as the people seated are not just moving their heads randomly. If we were actually at the stadium, we would learn that the first man we were observing is the father of one of the players. Therefore he has an even greater interest in this match, as his son is trying to make it to the professional level, and he needs this victory to win a major championship in the junior division.
In the beginning, when we didn’t know all of this information , when our angle of vision was quite narrow, the validity of our viewpoint and the accuracy of our deductions suffered. We surely made judgments about the behavior witnessed, but our opinions were made without knowing all of the facts. Along similar lines, to enlighten the souls inquisitive about the nature around them, the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, kindly fill in the missing details of the meaning of life and the purpose to the existence of so many different species in the perceptible world. This information is required because at the time of birth, the infant is completely ignorant. Children are like a blank slate, and based on the activities they take up and the instruction they are provided they can pretty much turn into anything as adults.
To realize the true potential for knowledge, intelligence and activity that accompanies a human birth, one must understand the essence of the soul and its natural properties. Irrespective of the level of knowledge of spirituality present, in every single individual and every activity adopted there is service. In the beginning stages, the child takes to serving its own interests by playing and having fun all day. After some maturity is gained, service gets directed towards teachers in school and parents at home. Eventually, the mature adult takes to serving an employer, a spouse, and children. In the latter stages of life, the aged individual loses many of its abilities, so they take service from their children and caretakers.
Only service offered to God can transcend the effects of time and space. We know that the soul is eternal because life on earth existed before the time of our birth. We know from our own experiences that life continues to exist when someone dies. If there is always life around us, then surely there must always be a place for the soul to travel. As the most amazing natural acrobat, the soul travels through ethereal space from one body type to another, with the specific form of residence determined by previous work and the desires measured at the time of death.
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)
When service is offered to the cause of all causes [sarva-karana-karanam], Lord Krishna, who is also described as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the soul remains put in Krishna’s association, forming a bond that is steady, unbreakable and immune to the destructive forces of time. Nothing related to our present body can be considered permanent because time will eventually take everything away. But consciousness, as a byproduct of the spiritual essence, remains with the individual spiritual entity from life to life. When the consciousness is focused always on the transcendental form of the Personality of Godhead, His names and His wonderful qualities, the association of the Supreme Spirit is never lost. Consciousness is the very essence of existence, and its development and purification should be the main focus of interest for those dwelling in a human body.
To purify consciousness, a set of superior activities is required, engagements which will lead the mind to subsequently think of new and better ways to repeat the same actions. The discipline of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, deals directly with consciousness, focusing the mind on sat, or that which exists eternally. It appears that we have a problem, however, due to the fact that material nature is forever mutable and changing. Even our outward bodies, which are composed of material elements, get created at some point in time and then get destroyed later on. Therefore how can we find anything in our present surroundings that is considered sat?
The holy name, which is simply the sound vibration representation of the Absolute Truth, is always sat. Therefore anyone who regularly chants, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, can be directly in touch with eternal Truth. But the eyes need stimulation as well; therefore the deity representation is carved out and worshiped. Though consisting of material elements, the deity acts as a non-different expansion of the same person addressed through the chanting of the holy name, whose original forms are all spiritual. In reality, contact with matter is only detrimental to those who view it to be separated from the Supreme Lord. When an object is deemed to be divorced of any relationship to spirit, it gets utilized for the personal sense interests of the worker. Since the service mentality is the catalyst for all action, the only difference between material activities and spiritual ones is the beneficiary. When material elements are used for the benefit of asat, or the material senses of the individual, they are classified as illusory and the source of much distress. But when objects which are seemingly asat are used to please, worship and think of sat, they assume the divine qualities of the transcendental beneficiary.
The devotee bows down before the deity because the service mentality in its purest form involves loving God. As the Supreme Controller, original proprietor, greatest enjoyer and best friend of the living entities, the Lord is meant to always be respected and worshiped properly. While worshiping an idol is practically worthless, when the visible object of affection represents the spiritual form of the Absolute Truth, benefits are received by both the worshipers and the sincere onlookers. Saying that we need to worship and respect God is nice in theory, but independently conjuring up spiritual thoughts is very difficult, especially when our outward actions lead us to associate with asat. In this way the deity symbolizes the unmatched mercy of the Lord, who is kind enough to appear in a form that is visible to our materially conditioned eyes, whose vision remains narrow in the absence of purification acquired through surrender to the highest authority.
If one somehow thinks that God can’t take the form of a deity, their understanding is very limited. If the original Person creates matter, why can’t He appear in a form that accepts worship? If God is meant to be our best friend and the person given highest priority, how can bowing down before His deity manifestation be harmful? Indeed, if the altering of consciousness is the end game, which it most certainly should be, wouldn’t any activity that further solidifies our attachment to God be worthwhile?
In addition to worshiping the deity, the devotee chants the holy names of the Lord as often as possible, and preferably in the company of others who are of the sat quality. People who have similar interests in music join together to attend concerts and watch videos, so why shouldn’t devotees of Krishna congregate and chant and dance and sing? Since the names of God are also sat, the transcendental singers never tire of reciting the same poetic lines over and over again. To benefit future generations of man, the great Vaishnava saints, devotees of Krishna, have passed down the holy names of the Lord in various songs, mantras and hymns. Sound is the gateway to the soul, so one who keeps the sound vibration representation of Shri Krishna constantly playing in their mind will quickly have their consciousness purified.
The more we zoom out of the initial picture of the spiritual traditions of the Vedas painted with the conditioned eye, the more we can understand and appreciate the glory of bhakti-yoga and its beneficiary. Every recommended practice of a bona fide religion has an end-goal. The specific procedures may vary, but there is always an ultimate destination, a condition that is deemed favorable. The nice thing about bhakti-yoga is that it automatically incorporates every type of favorable condition. Financial well-being, good fortune in fruitive endeavors, the alleviation of distress, peace of mind and so many other benefits automatically come to those whose consciousness remains steadily fixed on the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord. Due to their limited vision, the ignorant may come forward with their dogmatic insistence and decry the practices of the followers of the ancient religion of love that is bhakti, but when the discipline is properly understood, the purpose behind all religious systems is quickly revealed. Simply by reading the Shrimad Bhagavatam, the crown jewel of Vedic literature, knowledge of every type of philosophy, religion and yoga that has ever existed, currently exists and will ever exist in the future will be acquired. The devotee’s behavior remains a mystery to those who don’t understand the purpose to dedication in transcendental love, but for one who knows the ultimate destination, the reason for wanting to go there, and the steps necessary to attain it, bhakti-yoga quickly becomes the most understandable, pleasurable and difficult to renounce way of life.