“The Blessed Lord said: I instructed this imperishable science of yoga to the sun-god, Vivasvan, and Vivasvan instructed it to Manu, the father of mankind, and Manu in turn instructed it to Ikshvaku.” (Bhagavad-gita, 4.1)
“Don’t eat meat...Avoid illicit sex…Refrain from intoxication, and stay away from gambling.” These direct recommendations strike at the very heart of material life, especially in its modern incarnation. It is quite normal for there to be skepticism and resistance when hearing these words of advice from those who follow the ancient teachings found in sacred Vedic texts like the Bhagavad-gita. The initial reaction may be, “Who are these people to tell me what to do? What do they know anyway?” Nevertheless, even if every so-called authority figure is rejected, there will still be a guiding force to activity, a religious system if you will. The difference between the modes of discipline promulgated by the authorized Vedic teachers and the recommendations put forth by those deviating from the principles of regulative freedom as espoused in books like the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam is that the Vedic prescriptions represent real dharma, whereas other systems are simply espousals of faith and trust which don’t necessarily speak to the original disposition of the soul.
The spirit soul is the guiding force to activity. This can be understood by devotee and non-devotee alike. When the soul is present within a body, the resulting life form moves, talks, studies, learns, eats, sleeps and does so many other things. But once the same soul exits the body, the form is deemed lifeless, dead, no longer useful. The visible elements are usually still present immediately after the soul’s departure, so we can understand that it is the owner of the body who really matters and not the outer ingredients that seemingly perform action. Therefore for a system of regulation to be superior and foremost, it must tackle the interests of the soul first, while giving secondary concern to the demands of the body.
The Vedas, which emanate from the cause of all causes, conclude that the soul has primary characteristics which never diminish or change. The soul is eternal, knowledgeable and blissful, and, most importantly, an eternal servant of Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Since the soul is impossible to recognize without viewing the actions of the body, it is often considered formless, or without a permanent form. To clear this matter up, Lord Chaitanya, the preacher incarnation of Godhead who famously spread the holy name of the Lord throughout India some five hundred years ago, kindly revealed that the living entity’s original form, or svarupa, is that of servant of Krishna, or God. Though the soul may travel from one body to another - and from even one place to another within a single lifetime - its foremost characteristic, or dharma, doesn’t change. The individual soul will always remain a servant of Krishna at heart, even if this property is not acknowledged.
Dharma is ever-existing and not determined by faith or allegiance to a particular figure. Since dharma as a term means the essential characteristic of anything, when applied to spiritual practice, it points to the set of rules and regulations aimed at maintaining the svarupa of the spirit soul, which is the essence of individuality and the spark of life within any independent form, including a plant, tree or animal. The dog, cat and cow all have spirit souls. There is actually no difference in spiritual constitution between animals, plants and other forms of life. Where there are differences, however, is in the type of body assumed and the engagements that result. Only in the human form can dharma be understood and accepted as necessary for attaining the original position. If we were to find our true stature, we would also find the happiest conditions, experiences and situations, thereby ensuring that every result would end up favorable. By the same rule, if we found ourselves temporarily away from our original position, we would be forced to suffer through pain and misery.
Say, for example, that our body is naturally built for running. Our calves and thighs are muscular enough to ensure that we can run at decent speeds, and we derive enjoyment from committing ourselves to the long race. But then let’s say that we took to bodybuilding instead, a discipline which hardly bears any resemblance to running. We may or may not succeed in bodybuilding, but since we are not naturally accustomed to the practice nor are we tailored towards performing the exercises required for success in the discipline, we will not feel the same pleasure that we felt at our more natural home, the track.
“O Rama, You should know that just as fish cannot survive when taken out of water, neither Sita nor I can live without You for even a moment.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 53.31)
The expression, “like a fish out of water”, explains a lot about spiritual life. The fish is given a specific body type by nature; it must live in the water at all times. The outer covering is so specifically crafted that as soon as the fish is taken out of water, it starts to panic, and if it doesn’t return into its natural environment shortly thereafter, it will die. Similarly, other species are meant to reside in specific habitats, eat certain types of food, and derive enjoyment through specific behavior. When taken out of their natural habitat, pain, discomfort, and even death can result.
Though the different species have unique habitats, they all share the same dharma, that of being a lover of God. The human form is the most auspicious because only the human being can understand the need to reawaken the original characteristic, to take dharma to be the foremost guiding force in life. But accepting the tenets put forth by the Vedas, which represent sanatana-dharma, or the system which describes how the eternal occupational duty of man is carried out, is very difficult for two reasons. For one thing, even getting the opportunity to hear the truths of spiritual life - which describe material nature, the soul, travel through different bodies in the process of reincarnation, God, our position compared to Him, and the need for serving Him - is rare, for most in society are unaware of the need for gathering knowledge which deals with the afterlife. Even many spiritual leaders are eventually exposed to be bogus or severely flawed. They will say to worship God all the time, but then they are eagerly engaged in eating meat, which supports the practice of unnecessary animal killing. Other leaders will simply put forth the rules and regulations without explaining how they fit into the larger puzzle. Without knowing the ultimate goal, that of becoming God conscious by the time of death, how will anyone be made to accept the paths of virtue and righteousness that are needed for drastically shifting the predominant thought processes of the mind?
When someone says they are not overly religious or that they don’t necessarily believe in God, it means that they follow some mentally concocted dharma. Since the real dharma of the soul is an eternally existing property, any manmade assumption relating to the foremost characteristic of the individual and the activities necessary for maintaining that property at the highest level will be flawed. Everyone is following some system of maintenance, irrespective of their acknowledgment or denouncement of religion. Examples of this fact can be seen everywhere. Every day the newspapers and internet sites are filled with results from health studies just concluded. One expert says to eat oat bran all the time, while another says to avoid saturated fat. Then another health expert is recommending that we get regular cancer screenings once we reach a certain age.
The recommendations presented aren’t limited to just health issues. Virtually every facet of life has a concocted dharma and accompanying champions of the cause. There are the recommendations relating to charitable giving, recycling, caring for the environment, helping the poor, researching science and medicine, running to find a cure to a disease, and so many other projects. Each one of these engagements has rules and regulations to follow, and the people who don’t follow them are considered sinners, violators of the established covenant. Even in seemingly the most animal-like activities, those driven totally by the demands of the senses, drinking and illicit sex, there are rules and recommendations put forth for achieving a pleasurable outcome. The magazines popular with women are full of beauty tips and recommendations on when the woman should sleep with the man and how to know when a couple should get married. Drinkers are famous for their rules guiding their alcohol consumption, such as whether to drink liquor before beer and how to know when to stop drinking so that one can still drive home safely. Indeed, even the government gets involved in these areas, with public service announcements encouraging particular types of behavior.
Just by studying human behavior, we see that there is always religion, or a guiding force based on a philosophical conclusion. The difference between the system put forth by the Vedas and all the mentally concocted ones is that the end-goal, the identified true characteristic, never changes in the Vedas. Therefore real religion is aptly described by the term “sanatana-dharma”, which indicates that the essential property of the spirit soul can never change, regardless of anyone’s viewpoint. The recommendations put forth in the mentally concocted systems of societal maintenance always change, for new studies regularly debunk previous ones. Otherwise, why would a new study get any attention? First, eating butter was bad for you, so they introduced margarine and other replacements that were made of hydrogenated oils. After some time, these oils were deemed harmful, so they came up with compounds that were free of trans fat. No doubt in the future they will find problems with this method, so they will be left searching for more answers.
“There is no possibility of one's becoming a yogi, O Arjuna, if one eats too much, or eats too little, sleeps too much or does not sleep enough.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.16)
The Bhagavad-gita, the Song of God and most concise treatise describing sanatana-dharma, actually addresses every relevant issue, including eating and sex life. Lord Krishna says that a yogi, one trying to connect the soul with the Supersoul, the expansion of God residing within the heart, should not sleep too much or too little nor should they eat excessively or in too low quantities. As far as sex is concerned, it should be reserved for the grihastha stage of life, which is the married, householder order. After one has sufficiently trained under a guru, or spiritual master, in their youth, they can get married and have sexual relations under regulative principles for the purpose of begetting children. In this way, enjoyment can be had, but in a controlled manner, one that allows for further advancement towards the ultimate goal of life.
The whole point to the recommendations put forth by the non-devotees is to instill some regulation, controls that increase the odds of attaining the final goal. With dharma, however, the end-goal is always the same, that of maintaining the link to the spiritual world, enabling the soul to reassume its svarupa. With the mentally concocted dharmas and the diluted systems of religion, the end-goals always change. One who is given to drinking alcohol and one who is given towards charity work have completely opposite aims. Therefore the relevant systems of maintenance put forward aren’t universally applicable. Indeed, the more one is inclined towards intoxication the less likely they will be to engage in nobler pursuits.
“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, Bg. 2.13)
Though the resulting conditions may be contradictory, there is still a commonality shared in the systems that aren’t real dharma. They all aim to satisfy the gross senses of the body, a form which will be renounced at the end of life, a fact realized very quickly by the sober human being. Since sense demands rise and fall in intensity like the waves of the ocean and never remain completely at peace, the aims of the concocted dharmas are flawed from the very beginning. It is for this reason that so many new self-help books get published at regular intervals and find their way into bookstores. If the previous systems had proved beneficial, there would be no need to write new books espousing new beliefs.
There is also the issue of trust, as one can follow a system put forth by a scientist or philosopher, but there is no guarantee that the recommended methods will succeed, especially if they were developed recently. Even in chemical laboratories that manufacture new vitamins and health compounds, there are quality control tests to ensure that the products are up to par and don’t violate the standard formulas.
The benefits of sanatana-dharma are twofold. First, the system addresses the essential characteristic of the soul. Dharma is applicable for every single person; man, woman or child. Loving God is an activity that everyone is naturally prone towards. Therefore the recommendation put forth by the Vedic seers that we regularly chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, applies to every single person, irrespective of their religious affiliation, belief in God or lack thereof, or dedication to some mentally concocted system of dharma. Krishna and Rama are Sanskrit words that describe the wonders of the Supreme Absolute Truth in His original position as a personality ever worthy of our love and adoration. The more service we offer to the Supreme Person, the more our dharma comes to the forefront. When the original quality is fully alive, there is no chance of falling victim to the temptations of the senses, allures which only lead to trouble and bring very little in terms of lasting enjoyment.
Sanatana-dharma has also passed every quality control test. The Vedic seers of the past administered these tests by both using personal observation and seeing how their disciples rose above material life and came into the light of devotion. The ancient art of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, has been practiced since the beginning of time, with notable success story after success story highlighted in texts like the Ramayana and Shrimad Bhagavatam. Therefore we can use empirical evidence to support the claim that real dharma has never changed. Surely there have been new books written which glorify the Supreme Lord and describe the system of loving Him through perspectives unique to the authors, but the ultimate conclusion is always the same. Dharma puts forth rules and regulations that tie every piece of life together. The Vedas guide every single activity so that the conditions most favorable for adopting a permanent God consciousness at the time of death can be had. These recommendations have been tried and tested, and they work every single time, provided that the devotee is sincere and dedicated enough to the process. Even if there is failure in the current life, the yogi gets to resume from where they left off in their next birth. The same guarantee for success can’t be found in any other venture.
“By virtue of the divine consciousness of his previous life, he automatically becomes attracted to the yogic principles-even without seeking them. Such an inquisitive transcendentalist, striving for yoga, stands always above the ritualistic principles of the scriptures.” (Lord Krishna describing the subsequent birth of the unsuccessful yogi, Bg. 6.44)
Even in the rebel lifestyle, the one that says not to trust anyone over a certain age, there are guiding forces, rules and regulations to live by. Indeed, the very warning that one shouldn’t trust a certain person is itself a recommendation that is no different from a statement advising one to trust in a scriptural work or the words emanating from the lotus mouth of the bona fide spiritual master. One person says to follow and another says to reject, but in either case there is a recommendation made. One side bases their opinion off of the limited personal experiences accumulated over the very short time spent in the present body, whereas the other side trusts the opinion that has been passed down, tested, implemented and accepted by so many people spanning thousands of years on earth. Since the beginning of creation the makeup of society has constantly changed, and the people living within certain periods of time always thought they were the most advanced. Despite the changes to the outer world, the principles espoused by the bona fide teachers of spirituality haven’t changed and neither has the effectiveness of their recommendations.
At the end of the day, we are going to end up trusting someone. The numbers are always in favor of the spiritualist who is devoted in thought, word and deed to the Supreme Lord, who is a real person and not a mythical character. By undergoing the proper training and maintaining the correct attitude, we can realize the highest truths of spirituality for ourselves. If we are going to follow a system of maintenance and regulation, why not try one that has been followed, honored, adored and glorified since time immemorial: the discipline of divine love, the only practice that keeps the dharma of the soul ever vibrant and in an active state?