“The many past births you spoiled can be rectified right now, today, if you start chanting Shri Rama’s holy name and renounce bad association, says Tulsi.” (Dohavali, 22)
bigarī janama aneka kī sudharai abahīṃ āju |
hohi rāma ko nāma japu tulasī taji kusamāju ||
“You have spoiled so many lives through sense gratification and forgetfulness of your endearing friend, who is always willing to lend a helping hand and rescue you from peril. Now is the time for escaping the doldrums that are the repetition of days and fixing yourself for going down the right path. Take this opportunity of human life and chant Shri Rama’s holy name, which represents the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself. At the same time abandon the company of those who are headed in the wrong direction. They are destined for rebirth and further separation from the Supreme Loveable Object, whereas you have every opportunity to find eternal peace and happiness in the param dhama, the supreme abode. Don’t let this chance go to waste.”
This wonderful advice offered by the sweetheart Goswami Tulsidas not only sums up the basic problem facing all living entities, but it also provides the tangible solution, the roadmap to finding peace and prosperity. The Vedanta-sutras, a favorite treatise of the philosophers following Vedic traditions, starts off with a bang by boldly declaring, “athato-brahma-jijnasa”, or “Now is the time for inquiring about Brahman.” Notice that the most famous set of aphorisms focusing strictly on Vedic philosophy and presenting eternal truths in very concise and inclusive terms doesn’t begin by saying, “Now is the time for going after sense gratification.” Nor does it assert that the human form of body is meant for constructing large towers, advancing in technology, travelling far and wide into outer space, or even establishing a comfortable family life. The sense pleasures are there in every conditioned form, but only the human being has the opportunity to understand the need for worshiping a Supreme Person, a way to direct their service propensity towards a tangible object, one whose superior attributes never diminish. Only in the most sublime engagement, which is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, can the cycle of birth and death come to an end.
How do we know that reincarnation is real? How can we be sure that we’ve lived before? Aside from the authorized words attesting to the fact by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Lord and origin of Vedanta philosophy, and also the above teachings from Tulsidas, we can study the experiences from our own life to see how transmigration works. As a quick exercise to help further our understanding, let’s replace the word “day” with “life”. After all, according to the Vedic version what we consider a life is simply a unit of time; a measurement delineating the amount of time elapsed from the point of manifestation of a particular creature to its ultimate demise. The identifiable aspect, the spirit soul residing within, doesn’t have a time of birth or death. It never ceases to be; hence it is described as sanatana, or without beginning and end. At whatever age we currently are, we know that we have lived many days. A senior citizen has lived so many days that their bodily capabilities have greatly diminished. A young child is much more capable of performing work and being enthusiastic in their deliberations, but they too have lived many days on this earth.
“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)
What is a “day” really? We usually demark a new day when we wake up in the morning, but has anything really changed? We went to sleep the night before and awoke the next morning, and the sun may have fallen and risen during that time, but has our identity changed? Are we not the same person we were the night before? And what if we didn’t fall asleep and just stayed awake all night instead? Did not a day pass? In this way we see that measurements of time have no effect on our identifiable aspect, the spirit soul within. Indeed, even if we go through changes in consciousness, wherein we start off unintelligent and unable to even walk and progress to the point where we can give lectures on complex subjects in front of classrooms full of eager students, who we are doesn’t get altered in any way.
Now suppose we replaced the “day” concept in this analysis with “life”. The adult aged human being has thus endured many “lives”, repeating cycles of activity occurring consecutively. Regardless of how many lives were endured, and how much the consciousness progressed or regressed, the identity of the individual still didn’t change. The Vedic version of reincarnation is simply a more complete picture which states that just as the identities of the same individual within the womb and within the body of a dying old man on his deathbed are not different, so the properties of the spirit soul continue to exist from body to body. When there is death, what immediately follows is birth, as the same spirit soul is placed into a new body. We consider death a somber event because we can no longer perceive of the departed spirit soul’s presence, but blunt perception shouldn’t act as a determining factor when defining properties. When the sun sets at night, does it cease to be? Obviously it doesn’t go anywhere; just the specific location on the earth is no longer directly in the sun’s vision. Similarly, the soul's exiting of the body doesn’t signal its disintegration.
“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.6)
The circumstances of the next birth are determined by the active desires of the living entity while quitting their body and also the results of past work performed. Again, these concepts shouldn’t be very difficult to understand. In any field of activity the results of action lead to a future disposition. If we build a house correctly, we will have a well-fortified housing structure that can remain erect and sturdy for many years. On the other hand, if we make mistakes during the construction, there are guaranteed to be problems, with the severity of the future damage corresponding with the degree of deviation from the proper procedures.
Our behavior during the course of our lifetime determines the type of body we will receive in the next life. The Vedanta-sutras, and every wise man for that matter, understand that through karma the human being has the best opportunity to make the most favorable future outcome for himself. Reincarnation continues only for as long as the spirit soul within, the driving force to activity, desires to remain in a perishable land separated in consciousness from the eternal life partner. When the desires are turned towards the spiritual sky, where the proprietor of all things matter and spirit resides, the chance for a rebirth on earth vanishes.
Just the fact that we have taken birth indicates that we have wasted many lifetimes. This is the point made by Tulsidas. It’s sad but true; for we may not know when or how we are going to die, but it is a point of fact that we did take birth. And based on the workings of karma, we know that our entry into the womb of our mother only took place because of our desires and work from the previous life. Indeed, since the human species is only one of 8,400,000 varieties of body types available to the conditioned souls who fall down from the spiritual sky, we can also assume that we have wasted many lifetimes on earth toiling through different activities in pursuit of sense gratification. Therefore there is an utmost urgency to fix ourselves up today, to remove any doubt over having a potential rebirth.
So how do we ensure that rebirth stops? The process of purifying consciousness can be a methodical one involving dedication to specific actions undertaken over an extended period of time, but the guiding principles are pretty straightforward. Tulsidas has summed up the formula for success in just two rules. First he says that we should chant Rama’s name. The holy name of the Lord is non-different from Him, as the sound vibration representations of the Supreme Truth emanate from the spiritual sky. The most amazing and valuable skill of the human being is his ability to create a direct incarnation of the Lord at any time and at any place by simply chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. One may argue that Rama is a sectarian name addressing a Hindu God, Lord Rama, the incarnation of the Supreme Lord during the Treta Yuga. The name of Krishna can be viewed in the same way by those who are unfamiliar with the universal benevolence of the Supreme Lord and His fixed position as the worshipable object for every single person, irrespective of national, racial, ethnic or religious boundaries. Nevertheless, even if one is accustomed to chanting a different name of the Supreme Lord, the effectiveness of the process is still the same. The dedication to chanting must be there, otherwise the consciousness will remain fixed on items and concepts that will bring further rebirth, thus causing the living entity’s best chance at attaining salvation to be squandered.
Along with chanting, which forms the bedrock of the discipline of bhakti-yoga - a system which directly tackles the consciousness of the conditioned individual - there must be some renunciation as well. What do we have to give up? Do we have to live in the forest? Do we have to quit our jobs? Tulsidas says that accompanying the formula of chanting Rama’s name is the need for giving up bad association. Based on the truths presented thus far, deciphering what is good and bad association should be pretty easy. As the spirit soul has spoiled so many lifetimes becoming attached to sense gratification that has provided no lasting benefit, the aim of the sober human being should be to avoid the company of those who are currently smack-dab in the middle of spoiling their lives. This may seem like a harsh restriction, but by making the first recommendation a priority, the renunciation aspect actually takes care of itself.
A review of the key components of success in any field of endeavor can show us how this principle works. Let’s say that our life’s business is to serve in medicine, to act as a doctor and heal the sick. This profession requires not only a lot from the practicing professionals, but also from those who are studying the field. Therefore in order to succeed there are certain conditions that must be met, such as long hours of studying and avoidance of dangerous behavior. Now let’s suppose the doctor or prospective student spends significant time around people who drink, smoke and party on a regular basis. In order to function properly at the office or hospital, an individual must be sober and well-rested. If they are partying all the time, the chances of carrying out their specific tasks properly will greatly diminish. In this way we see that if the priority is first placed on the occupation of medicine, naturally the individual will renounce any and all things that are harmful to their level of dedication. Simply because of the attachment to the job at hand, the proper company will be maintained and the wrong association will be renounced.
Similarly, if the fervent desire is to regularly chant Rama’s names, view His different deity forms in the temple, hear about Him from other devotees, read about His exploits in the famous Vedic texts like the Ramayana, Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam, the association of those who are against such practices will not be very pleasing. Simply by acting selfishly, bad association will get renounced. Indeed, in the beginning stages if a forced effort can be made to have good association, the company of people who are already practicing bhakti, the chances of succeeding increase all the more.
Bad association in spiritual life is the company of those who are headed in the wrong direction. As it has been deciphered from the fact that we took birth in this lifetime that many past lifetimes on earth have gone to waste, the aim should be to avoid the assumption of another material body. Those who have not yet realized the need for escaping reincarnation or who are openly averse to divine love are on a train headed in the wrong direction. Maintaining their company equates to jumping on the train with them and hoping to reach the supreme abode at the same time. Renunciation of bad association means avoiding intimate association with someone whose ultimate conclusion in life doesn’t relate to bhakti, or loving devotion to God. When there is intimate association, there is a compromise in terms of beliefs and ideals, wherein the individual turns over some of their happiness and desires to the complementary entity. If the corresponding association has the same ultimate desire, then there is no worry of spoiling the current life, but in any other circumstance there is every chance of falling down and ignoring the importance of bhakti.
The advice provided by Tulsidas is universally applicable, as he wrote this verse in his Dohavali poem many hundreds of years ago. The beauty of the Vaishnavas, the devotees of Vishnu/Krishna/Rama, is that none of their writings are dated. The newspapers and gossip shows have information of fleeting relevance, facts which lose their importance very quickly. But with classic Vedic texts and the commentaries and poems describing them written by celebrated acharyas and saints, the relevance never fades away. Chanting Rama’s name is as important today as it has ever been. So many lifetimes have been spoiled immersed in other activities, engagements which have been tried and tried again, chewed over and over with little to no taste left. On the other hand, the best option is still there on the table, just waiting to be tried. The name of the Lord is the ticket to eternal freedom, and by holding on to it for dear life and repeating it on a daily basis, the delineations of time and space will be no more, as the spirit soul will remain forever in the company of the dear Lord.