“The body and the mind are but superfluous outer coverings of the spirit soul. The spirit soul's needs must be fulfilled. Simply by cleansing the cage of the bird, one does not satisfy the bird. One must actually know the needs of the bird himself.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.2.8 Purport)
Clean up the inside of the cage to remove the waste deposits and maintain a nice smell. The bird will appreciate this, as who besides a hog enjoys living in filth? But is this all that the bird needs? Will a clean cage take care of everything? If the bird is ill, bored, hungry, stressed, or in want of activity, what will the clean cage do? The simple, yet insightful analogy to the birdcage effectively explains the difference between matter and spirit, and also highlights the fatal flaw in the proposals most commonly presented for finding happiness. Without addressing the needs of the spirit soul, no formula can prove effective in securing permanent happiness.
And why would we want happiness? The question should be, “why wouldn’t we want to be happy all the time?” The goal of every activity, even something as simple as getting up in the morning, is to reach a positive future condition. If you make the objection that the distressed worker arises early in the morning to avoid the punishment that comes from arriving late to the jobsite, even that pursuit represents a search for pleasure. The removal of distress, in this case represented by the chastisement from the establishment’s owner, is itself a pleasant reward, something sought after. Though the following happiness is short-lived, the pain from misappropriating time in the morning is so acute that it is worth avoiding.
With a birdcage, there are debris and dirt deposits that build up over time. Though the cage is relatively small, the principles that go into cleaning it apply to even the largest scale. You could even use something as large as an automobile and apply the same principles. If the brakes aren’t working, you take the car to a mechanic to get it fixed. If you’re feeling adventurous enough, you may even try to do the job yourself, for nothing is more satisfying than using your own hands to complete a difficult task.
But what if the owner of the vehicle isn’t cared for? What if the person who drives the car has a fever or is suffering from a mental illness? What good then will a properly functioning automobile be to that ailing person? The vehicle will just sit in the garage or driveway and remain unused. It ends up being an expensive piece of furniture more than anything else. Those who operate on a higher level of thought give more importance to the needs of the occupant of the vehicle. If the driver is maintained, he can take the necessary action to ensure that the vehicle is functioning properly. It doesn’t work the other way around. The automobile cannot administer medicine, prescribe drugs, or take our internal temperature. Neither can the car engage in conversation, put a smile on our face through sweet words, or tell us where to go in life. The navigation system may tell us which turns to make along the route, but it cannot tell us how to find the one engagement where the thrills encountered meet the constant demands for pleasure within the spirit soul.
Is there someone who can teach us these things? This is the business of the bona fide spiritual master, or guru. The first lesson the guru learned in their own progression towards full enlightenment was that there is an occupant within every bodily form. That occupant’s needs are more important than the dwelling’s, for if the individual is functioning properly, they can act in such a way that their body can survive on minimal necessities.
Why would this be required? Why should we starve ourselves if we have ample food around? The issue relates to attachment and the priority system of importance. If we have a refrigerator full of the most sumptuous food, does it mean that we should eat more than we need to? And what exactly determines how much food we need? We know that some people are skinny and others are overweight; hence they have different eating requirements. How can we apply a universal benchmark for food intake?
“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 rule of thumb is to consume whatever amount of food it takes to keep the body satisfied, to keep the vital functions running, to ensure that one is neither lethargic nor too stimulated by the senses. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, provides the simplest formula for bodily maintenance in the Bhagavad-gita by stating that a yogi should neither eat too much nor too little. And lest we think yoga is not for us, the level of connection to the divine consciousness is the true measure of an individual’s happiness. Yoga is the way to find peace and contentment without giving primary concern to the outer covering.
The yogi aims to link the individual soul with the Supreme Soul, the source of all pleasure. The individual soul is a mystery, for its presence cannot be detected by even the most powerful microscope. At the same time, the soul’s influence can be noticed at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels. The individual soul acts locally, causing otherwise dull lumps of matter to seemingly act on their own, while the Supreme Soul acts on the largest scale, causing the planets to rotate and revolve and the elements to affect large areas of land.
Just as the individual soul is the source of intelligence within a life form, the Supreme Soul is the mastermind behind the workings of the grand collection of material elements. Depending on the angle of vision used, the level of clarity acquired through accepting instruction from a teacher, that Supreme Soul can be known as nature, Brahman, God, Paramatma, or Bhagavan. Nature is thrown into the mix because that is how the least intelligent conceptualize the Supreme Soul. Nature is considered unintelligent; it is just there. The heat and light of the sun appeared randomly, sort of like how the millions of jobs operating in a large economy just happened to be created on their own. When you take something for granted and ignore its original cause, you will never be able to properly understand how to utilize the resulting output. With ignorance come vain attempts at understanding, sort of like throwing darts against a board while in a dark room. In philosophical circles, the ignorance results in theories like the evolution of species, man-made global warming, and the ability to control outcomes to people’s behavior through laws and regulations passed by governing bodies.
When one takes to a bona fide discipline of spirituality, they learn of Brahman; thus giving some identity to nature. The spirit soul is Brahman, and since every life form has a spirit inside of it, everything is Brahman. Even the material substance comes from Brahman, for Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad-gita that He impregnates the total material substance and thus causes life forms to populate the world. Understanding Brahman is very difficult, for by outward perception we only see differences in species; thereby resulting in varying treatments. It is certainly valid to treat a tiger differently than a cow, but this doesn’t mean that at the core their identities are any different. The bodily manifestations result in varied behaviors, but the quality of Brahman is the same.
“The total material substance, called Brahman, is the source of birth, and it is that Brahman that I impregnate, making possible the births of all living beings, O son of Bharata.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.3)
A little more advanced understanding reveals that Brahman has intelligence and can be localized. The individual spirit souls are Brahman, but there is also a giant collection of spirit which expands to reside within every living entity alongside the individual aspect of Brahman. This plenary portion is referred to as the Paramatma, or Supersoul. Yoga is specifically meant for connecting with this Supersoul.
The first rule in yoga practice is regulation. Therefore everything from eating to sleeping is controlled in the practice of yoga, for without attention to the spirit soul and its counterpart residing within the heart, the tendency towards attachment to the material form will increase. For a yogi eating is curbed, limited to only what is necessary to keep the vital force within the body. If we should eat everything in the refrigerator, the chances of giving more attention to the body increase. The more attachment there is to matter, the more the concentration in yoga diminishes. Someone who receives no training in spiritual life and never learns of the difference between matter and spirit will ignore the presence of the soul completely, caring only for the needs of the body, which is like the cage for the bird.
Sad it is when this is the priority system adopted, for the more sense gratification becomes the ultimate aim, the less likelihood there is of remaining detached from the form which will ultimately be discarded at the time of death. To fix the situation the spiritual master teaches yoga, the most potent form of which is bhakti. We can think of bhakti-yoga as the most assertive approach in transcendentalism, the way of playing offense, going on the attack by finding the soul its most ideal counterpart in His complete form. This way, regardless of what progress is or isn’t made in gaining detachment from the interests of the cage-like body, at least the soul gets some positive association, at least there is some spiritual satisfaction.
Only in bhakti-yoga is the Supreme Soul identified for who He really is: Bhagavan. Bhagavan is most commonly known as God, but the Vedas tag Him with thousands of names to give the spirit souls a slight understanding of what the concept of God actually means. The term “bhagavan” says that the Supreme Lord is the most fortunate living entity. The individuals roaming the material land, on the other hand, are always unfortunate. How can we be considered fortunate if something as simple as eating can cause us so much trouble? The onset of disease is sped up through irregular habits, especially as they relate to eating. Fill up your stomach with food that you don’t need and your reward will be so much pain and discomfort. Constantly attack your body from the inside and it won’t have the strength to fend off the steady onslaught of diseases.
“By keeping regular habits and eating simple food, any man can maintain his health. Overeating, over-sense gratification, overdependence on another's mercy, and artificial standards of living sap the very vitality of human energy.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.1.10 Purport)
Bhagavan is the most fortunate because no one has more beauty, wealth, strength, fame, renunciation, or wisdom than Him. Since He is all-attractive, He is also referred to as Krishna. The spirit soul occupying the temporary dwelling composed of material elements is at its core a lover of Krishna. The spiritual master who follows bhakti, who knows Bhagavan, instructs everyone - including those who are not fully surrendered, those who are dedicated to other spiritual traditions, and even those who deny the existence of God and instead take shelter of an impersonal force known as nature - to regularly chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
The direct approach with bhakti is better because with other methods, the best one can hope for is a clean cage or detachment from material interests. While these are good steps, they don’t solve the issue of happiness, the pleasure the soul seeks. The spiritual master, from studying the Vedas thoroughly, reveals the hidden secret that Shri Krishna is the reservoir of all pleasure. Since the living entities emanate from Him, they inherit that blissful propensity, or ananda. Who better to fulfill your hankering for bliss than Krishna? If you crave pizza, it is best to satisfy that hunger in an establishment that makes the best pizza. If you desire a high-end television set, it is best to purchase it from a store that sells many of them that are the top of the line.
If you’re looking for transcendental happiness, connect with the beautiful youth who has a blackish complexion, who holds the flute in His hands and wears a peacock feather in His hair. Cast your glance on the sweet vision that is the son of Nanda and Yashoda, who is so kind to the fallen souls that He expands Himself as the Supersoul and resides within their hearts. Shri Krishna is the very same Brahman, but in the complete form. He is the nature that we take for granted, as He controls the heat and the rain. Understanding the different aspects in life can help us to cope temporarily, but this disposition will not address the needs of the soul. On the other hand, the yogi fully immersed in bhakti has all of their needs taken care of.
Let’s think of it this way. If our primary objective is to get to a specific destination, say perhaps even on a regular basis, we will make sure that the car is running smoothly and that it doesn’t have any problems. Should a problem arise, our goal of reaching our destination will be threatened. Since the goal has the highest priority, we’ll do whatever it takes to ensure that the car starts working again; otherwise happiness will be threatened. While the goal of travelling to a specific destination only handles a few other responsibilities like the maintenance of the car and time management, the aim of always connecting with Krishna is complete. Therefore it automatically handles every aspect of life, including the maintenance of the body. The yogi wanting to enjoy Krishna’s association through chanting His names, hearing about His pastimes, and visiting His temples ensures that they don’t eat too much or sleep too little because these extremes will jeopardize their ability to fully relish Krishna’s company. Since bhakti takes care of both the body and the owner, it is superior to any other system of maintenance.
The inside of the birdcage do you clean,
For tidiness and pleasant dwelling to be seen.
But needs of the resident bird do we neglect?
Is it good for attention towards home to deflect?
Effort to maintain the car do you make,
So that to destination you it will take.
The owner is more important however,
To move on its own car is not enough clever.
In similar way, the needs of the soul should be addressed,
From just concern over body evolution regressed.
Soul meant for the most auspicious destination,
To bask always in Krishna’s sweetest association.
Follow bhakti and to soul give top priority,
Other issues solved, happiness with regularity.