“Knowledge, jnana, means understanding our relationship with Krishna. A wise man asks, ‘What is my duty to Krishna?’ Once we understand our relationship with Krishna and our duty to Him, we naturally become reluctant to engage in material activities. This is called vairagya, detachment from material activities. Jnana and vairagya can be awakened by bhakti-yoga.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Teachings of Lord Kapila, Ch 18)
When first presented with spiritual teachings, the attentive listener, the person on the receiving end of the valiant preaching efforts of the ebullient and sometimes boorish devotee of a worshipable personality, can have one of two reactions. Especially when information is presented by followers of the Vedas, the ancient system of spirituality passed down since time immemorial through a tradition of hearing wisdom and subsequently acting upon it, the choice of action is a pass/fail one; black or white, fight or flight, yes or no, etc. Those who are emphatically opposed to the teachings calling for complete and total surrender unto a supreme personality presented before them might have the reaction of, “No way, Jose! Not me. This stuff might be important to you, but I can’t believe what you’re saying. I already have my God and I’m fine with Him.” But then there is the inquisitive soul, he who has some interest in hearing more about this Supreme Person whose name is Krishna and who always carries a flute and wears a peacock feather in His hair. Just hearing descriptions of His glorious nature is enough to reel in the sincere soul who is looking for a bona fide spiritual path to follow, one that becomes a way of life and thus provides the topmost transcendental bliss. In these cases, the initial reaction of the recipients will invariably be, “Okay, I’m ready to surrender to Krishna, but now what? What do I do? What is my responsibility to Him?”
By delving further into the matter, we can see that responsibilities of any kind share a common trait. In the realm of spirituality, this trait’s importance becomes more pronounced. From studying example after example of different activities, a pattern starts to emerge. We see that duty is accepted to maintain a predominant characteristic, be it a personal quality, situation, or relationship. For instance, the husband has the duty of protecting the wife and taking care of the family interests. The inherent quality of a marriage is that husband and wife are together in each other’s company. Therefore the natural obligation handed to both parties is that they do whatever is necessary to maintain the defining characteristic of the relationship. Any new responsibilities that emerge will be derived from the ideal condition. The husband must earn a living to support the family; the wife must take care of the children; the husband must ensure that his wife is well taken care of in health; the wife must ensure that the family life is peaceful, stable and welcoming to outside guests, etc. Thus we see that so many duties and responsibilities come about on their own simply through understanding the nature of the relationship, the ideal condition.
Along the same lines, the individual living being gets their predominant characteristic from their relationship to the Supreme Lord. This should make sense after all, as God is the original creator, the source from which everything spiritual and material emanates. The Bhagavad-gita, the concise treatise on spirituality espoused by Krishna Himself and which follows the Vedic system, says that the spirit soul, the individual autonomous unit of energy within any form of gross matter that is deemed living, never takes birth and never dies. The spirit souls are sanatana, or eternal, just like the person to whom they are intimately related. It appears that we have a contradiction here, as by saying that the spiritual energy comes from some place, it implies that spirit souls have a beginning, and thus the stipulation of no birth loses its meaning. The actual situation can be thought of in this way: The spirit souls come from God, and since the Lord has no birth or death, the souls can also be considered eternal. These sparks forever exist, so their individuality is always there, even when it lies in a dormant state, such as during the time it may spend in the light of Brahman, the brahmajyoti.
Vedic teachings are precisely geared towards enlightening the wayward souls on their proper identity. In the absence of this sound instruction, identification will be taken from outer features; hence the existence of practices like racism, nationalism, sectarianism, ethnocentrism, and so many other “isms”. All of the equality movements that have sprung up over the course of human history are aimed at eliminating some level of false identification, but unless and until the relationship with the Supreme Lord is defined, which obviously can’t happen until the Supreme Person Himself is properly understood and identified, no mentality can be considered all-inclusive.
The flaws in the mindsets that are supposedly based on spirituality are revealed when inhumane practices like animal slaughter and terrorism follow. Those eating the meat of slain cows and even those running the slaughterhouses may be avowed followers of a particular faith, people who openly claim to believe in God, but since they engage in sinful activity by killing innocent members of the Lord’s creation, it can be understood that they have not been made aware of the properties of individual spirit and the soul’s ability to reside in up to 8,400,000 different life forms, including those belonging to the animal kingdom.
Similarly, the religious zealots engaged in blowing up buildings, setting off bombs in crowded places, and holding innocent women and children hostage to further a political purpose actually have zero understanding of spirituality. Based on their concocted theories and their own prejudices, they use religion as an excuse to further their personal interests which are driven solely off the animalistic mindset.
“After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.19)
The comparison to the animal species is appropriate because only in the human form of body can the soul develop a consciousness that is wise enough to even ponder the question of identity. Indeed, anyone who asks the question of “Who am I?” is considered very wise according to the Vedic estimation. Out of the few who will ask this question, an even smaller percentage will take the necessary steps to understand their true position and what that means. Again, out of the small amount of the inquisitive population that will take the necessary steps to try to understand the Supreme Spirit, an even smaller number will actually understand that God is the most attractive person possessing the attributes of beauty, wealth, strength, fame, renunciation and wisdom to the fullest degree and simultaneously, thereby making Him ever worthy of the name of “Krishna”.
Let’s say that a soul has been fortunate enough to cut through all the noise and see through the pretenders espousing versions of spirituality that fail to be all-inclusive in their practices and ideology. Let’s say that a person even accepts Krishna, or some other non-different expansion of the same personality, as God. Then what? What are they to do? After identifying who Krishna is, what steps need to be taken? The relationship between individual spirit and Supreme Spirit is nicely summarized in the philosophy of Lord Chaitanya known as achintya-bhedabheda-tattva. We label this philosophy as belonging to Shri Gaurahari, the preacher incarnation of Godhead, only because He was the first one to openly identify it and preach exclusively off of it. Indeed, since God and His infinitesimal sparks are sanatana, the relationship between them cannot be explained in a philosophy or truth which is conjured up within the mind. Rather, Lord Chaitanya was just kind enough to reveal the ultimate truth to everyone and then show us how to act off of it.
His philosophy states that the individual souls are simultaneously one with and different from the Supreme Lord. And lest we rack our brains for the rest of our lives trying to understand how this is possible, Lord Chaitanya says that this simultaneous oneness and difference is inconceivable to the mind, or achintya. The proper course of action is to act off of this disposition rather than take to understanding the specific truths and laws of nature that go into its construction. Generally, on the lower stages of spiritual understanding, when the sincere soul is not yet ready to fully surrender their thoughts, words and deeds to Krishna, individual components like jnana and vairagya are required to help further increase devotion. Jnana is knowledge, such as understanding the differences between matter and spirit, the workings of the universe, and the eternality of individual spirit. Vairagya is renunciation, giving up those engagements which further solidify the animal tendencies inherited at the time of birth. These two components are very helpful in making progress in spiritual understanding.
When one takes directly to serving Krishna and agrees to abide by their duty to Him, both jnana and vairagya come automatically. Since there is a simultaneous difference and oneness in makeup between us and Krishna, there is a natural relationship that results. Krishna is superior and we are inferior, so it would stand to reason that we would act as His servants and He would accept our kind efforts. As the reservoir of pleasure, Krishna, or God, is meant to always be pleased, for His happiness is shared with His devotees. Though the relationship with God never changes, when the bond is not identified, the actions undertaken by the individual soul don’t lead to Krishna’s direct pleasure. Therefore the inherent duty of every spirit soul roaming this and every other universe is to maintain the link in consciousness with the Supreme Spirit through expressive acts of love and devotion.
Lest we think we are being forced into worship and being made subjects of an all-powerful ruler, the service mentality is already present within everyone. Irrespective of the engagement and the identified beneficial condition, there is always service required to maintain the utmost characteristic. The example of the marriage was mentioned previously, but we can also use any relationship to see that the pattern followed is the same. In the office environment, the subjects, i.e. the workers, are employed to maintain the profitability of the company. From this simple relationship come many new responsibilities, smaller tasks and obligations that must be met. The CEO works to accept the service from the workers and also to maintain the good standing of the company. The politician acts in the interest of the constituents, the students for the pleasure of the teacher, the police officer to protect the distressed citizen attacked by rogues and thieves, the disciple to glorify and please his spiritual master, etc.
If service is present in every field of endeavor not related to spirituality, why should it be absent in maintaining the link to the one person who is superior to everyone else? My duty to Krishna is to maintain the link to Him in consciousness through acts of devotion that are collectively known as the discipline of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Bhakti-yoga’s quintessential activity, the one behavior that best solidifies the understanding of the individual and their unbreakable friendship to the Supreme Person, and also the one practice wholly recommended by Shri Krishna Chaitanya, is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This mantra is directly tied to Lord Chaitanya, as He was kind enough to remove the cloak of secrecy previously tied to it and reveal it to the rest of the world. Many mantras of the Vedic tradition are rightly reserved for specific students and rituals that are difficult to complete. But the maha-mantra addresses the Lord in a mood of love and devotion, and most importantly, it contains His two most potent names, Krishna and Rama. These sound vibrations describe God’s features as the all-attractive personality and the entity who provides transcendental pleasure to His devotees. These names also reference two forms of Godhead that are non-different from one another.
“The living entity is an eternal servant of Krishna, the Supreme God.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 20.108)
Based on the example set by Lord Chaitanya, we see that everyone’s duty is to regularly chant the maha-mantra, at least sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads if possible. In the Vedic system, when the guru initiates a disciple he chants a specific mantra on a set of beads and then hands those beads over to the disciple to use in their spiritual practice. The idea is that the beads become empowered by the representative of the Lord, a spiritual master who appears in a chain of disciplic succession which has as its source Shri Krishna. With the recommendation of chanting Hare Krishna sixteen rounds daily, there is tremendous potency already built in. We can think of the sixteen rounds recommendation as having been personally empowered by Lord Chaitanya Himself, for He knew that future generations would have a difficult time answering the question of, ”What is my duty to Krishna?” This chanting regulation is sufficient in taking up a significant portion of each day, thereby allowing the sincere soul to gain both knowledge and renunciation through the simplest and most effective of practices.
Once the bhakti mindset, that of pure love and devotion for Krishna, envelops the sincere soul, the subsequent occupational duties seemingly emerge on their own. The humble devotee takes whatever steps are necessary to maintain the fidelity of their relationship to Krishna. This means that whatever is favorable towards the furthering of Krishna consciousness is accepted, and whatever leads to a return to the conditioned life that proved miserable for so many lifetimes is rejected. Refraining from the sinful engagements of meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex, the steady devotee’s mind becomes free to always think of Krishna and relish His pastimes that continue to occur throughout the innumerable universes in existence. Right now, somewhere in space, Krishna is appearing from the womb of Mother Devaki and asking Vasudeva to transfer Him to Vrindavana. Somewhere Krishna is lifting the mighty Govardhana Hill and protecting the residents of Vrindavana from the torrential downpour instigated by Indra. Somewhere Krishna is speaking the Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna, and somewhere the Lord is enjoying pastimes with the gopis and their leader, Shrimati Radharani. If we make chanting Krishna’s names our main occupation, we can be assured that wherever we go and whatever we do, the sound vibrations emanating from the spiritual sky can be heard, even in a land seemingly divorced of its relationship to God. Hearing God is as good as seeing Him, so following bhakti principles will allow any space to be turned into a spiritual land very quickly.