“The unsuccessful yogi, after many, many years of enjoyment on the planets of the pious living entities, is born into a family of righteous people, or into a family of rich aristocracy.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.41)
It is stated in the Bhagavad-gita that the unsuccessful yogi does not have to worry about having his efforts go for naught or worshiping the Supreme Self in vain. There is no progress lost on the path towards ultimate liberation, which provides the identifiable aspect within every living creature its supreme satisfaction, of which it is most certainly deserving. With other ventures, an unplanned occurrence, something terrible happening at the wrong time, can wipe the slate clean, but the same does not apply with steps made towards the origin of all life and matter. From the statements in the Gita pertaining to this subject, there may be some confusion, for the next destination of the unsuccessful yogi can be a place seemingly not very conducive to spiritual life. A quick review of the matter, however, shows that Lord Krishna - the speaker of the Gita and the object of yoga, the beneficiary of every religious practice performed in the past, present or future - is correct about the fate of the unsuccessful yogi being beneficial.
What is a yogi and how can one be successful as a yogi? Yoga is the linking of the individual soul with the Supreme Soul. The difference between the two entities is subtle yet stark at the same time. The qualification of subtle is made because the individual spirit soul is the same in quality as the Supreme Soul. Juxtapose two human beings. One may be in the stage of infancy while the other is in adulthood. One might have been born in a certain land while another is a native of another area. Despite the differences in circumstances and maturation of external features, the two entities are identical in where they take their identity from. Those sources of identity are also of the same quality. Just as ice and vapor are two different manifestations of the same matter, the living beings in different material bodies are spirit souls with different outer coverings.
The Supreme Soul resides within every living being as well. This spiritual entity is the same in quality as the individual soul. Both are transcendental to matter, eternal, knowledgeable and blissful. But there are differences between the two entities; otherwise one wouldn’t be called Supreme. The Supreme Soul, who is also known as the Paramatma, is all-pervading. The individual soul within is only conscious of its present life’s activities. Since the soul is eternal, it has existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future. The body types are inhibiting towards knowledge, however, sort of like how a lampshade covers up the brilliant light emitted by a lamp. Forgetfulness, the darkness of ignorance, is concomitant with association with matter.
Not only is the Paramatma conscious of the previous lives of the localized being, but it is also connected to every other living entity as well. Hence the Paramatma is referred to as antaryami, or the all-pervading witness. As this ability is not present in the individual soul, the Paramatma automatically becomes superior. From the Bhagavad-gita, we learn that the Paramatma is an expansion of God, a localized representation of the Supreme Lord which acts as an impartial witness to the activities of the individual soul.
“I am seated in everyone's heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas am I to be known; indeed I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.15)
Yoga is the linking of the individual with the Supreme within the body. Every endeavor actually descends from the search for this link. In ignorance, however, the link will be sought with worldly objects, people and things that are not attached to spirit. Another living entity is obviously a spirit soul as well, but if the source of the attachment to them is related to their bodily manifestation, there is no connection with spirit. The Paramatma is as pure as you get, so the connection that results inherits the same properties as the corresponding entity. Hence yoga is the ultimate activity, the most worthwhile aim to achieve.
Just learning of the need for yoga is rare enough. In the modern age the word “yoga” has turned into a synonym for stretching exercises and gymnastics. The health benefits are but a small aftereffect of the ancient system that was always intended to bring about a fruitful union between the two souls residing within the body. After learning of the need for yoga, practicing it properly is rather difficult. For starters, through many lifetimes spent attached to matter, the conditioned soul is confident that just finding gratification for the senses will be enough to provide happiness. The serpents that are the senses are the greatest inhibitors to achieving the perfect union that is yoga. So the first step in yoga is to provide some type of sense control through austerity and penance.
Whether you try the type of yoga involving the renunciation of the fruits of work, the study of matter and spirit, or work in full devotion to the Supreme Lord, there is always some type of austerity involved. In bhakti-yoga, which is the easiest to implement but the most difficult to accept with firm conviction, the emphasis is placed on the positive activities of devotion, such as hearing about God in His personal form, worshiping His non-different manifestation of the deity, and chanting His names, like those found in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Coupled with these positive activities is restraint from sinful behavior like meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex.
Since the Gita was a discourse between the original spiritual master of the world and one of His students, there was some back and forth, several question-and-answer periods. When hearing about the principles behind yoga and how difficult it is to practice yoga to fruition, the receiver became a little worried. The fruit of yoga practice is samadhi, or more specifically, sharanagati, which is the merging of the soul into an ocean of bliss through surrender to God. The perfect yogi does not take birth again after the present life is over. Their consciousness is tied to the Supreme Lord, so they get a spiritual body in the next life, one that does not damage the link to the divine consciousness.
Arjuna, Krishna’s student in the Gita, was worried about what would happen to the yogi who didn’t achieve full God consciousness by the time of death. So much hard work goes into yoga, and if one doesn’t succeed, will they have to start over again from the beginning in the next life? Krishna responded by allaying Arjuna’s fears and those of countless future generations by stressing the fact that the unsuccessful yogi never goes backwards. Even if they should fall off of the devotional platform, they get to start again in the next life from the place where they left off.
How does this work exactly? Krishna says that the next birth is in an environment which is conducive to yoga practice. Being born into a family that is God conscious or already devoted to yoga would naturally increase the chances of a person continuing their yoga from the previous life. But Krishna also mentions a family of aristocracy as being a destination for the unsuccessful yogi, who first enjoys in the heavenly planets for many, many years. Yoga corresponds with righteousness, or piety, so there are merits relating to temporary rewards simultaneously accumulated through the link in consciousness, though the target objective is to connect with God and not to find enjoyments that relate to the body that one is trying to transcend.
The concern may be raised that a family of an aristocracy can create circumstances that actually inhibit yoga practice. Sort of like being born with a silver spoon in your mouth, taking birth in a rich family means that sense gratification will be easily available. We know that regularly meeting sense demands will only add fuel to the fire of material existence, making it more difficult to satisfy the same senses in the future. Think of the spoiled kid who is used to getting so many gifts for Christmas that they get angry if they don’t get enough presents on one particular year. How can birth in such a family be conducive to yoga?
In the context of the statements of the Gita, aristocracy actually refers to culture. A family that is cultured can be considered an aristocracy, especially during the time that Krishna was delivering His wonderful message to Arjuna. A non-aristocratic family is more focused on the senses and meeting its demands through hard labor. In ancient times, the laborer class was not educated. They were protected by the higher classes, and they would remain steadfast to their dharma, or occupational duties, through service. Though it is possible for any person in any class or gender to be able to achieve perfect yoga within one lifetime, the circumstances of a non-aristocratic birth make it difficult to even learn about yoga, let alone take up the practice. If the mind is constantly worried about how to procure food and keep a roof over the head, how is it going to pay attention to words of spiritual wisdom?
In modern times, we can liken a non-aristocratic birth in the context of the Gita to being born in abject poverty, where there is no guarantee of eating on a particular day. If there is no peace of mind, how can there be any happiness? If there is no comfort of knowing when and where to eat, how is the mind going to contemplate higher topics like the meaning of life and the need for transcending the senses? A sannyasi, a person accepting the renounced order with fearlessness and firm conviction in the path, can perhaps survive in such unpleasant conditions, but for the normal person the uncertainty would be too much to handle.
At least in an aristocracy there is a chance to become cultured, to be educated on higher matters. Even if yoga shouldn’t be the first avenue chosen, one who is satisfied to the limit with the senses will have a better chance of questioning the meaning of life. If, on the one hand, you have one person who just wants to have a secure life of material amenities and on the other you have one who has already lived that life, obviously the latter person can eliminate more options as being candidates for the ultimate aim in life. No amount of wealth or opulence can make a person truly happy. If it could, the wealthy would never take to philanthropy or seek further expansion of their business.
“Persons who have acted piously in previous lives and in this life, whose sinful actions are completely eradicated and who are freed from the duality of delusion, engage themselves in My service with determination.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.28)
When the individual who has everything becomes bewildered about the meaning of life, they have every opportunity for reviving the divine consciousness and remaining connected to God in yoga. It is said in the Gita that one who has exhausted all of their sinful activities is eligible for coming back home, back to Godhead. At the root level, any behavior not dovetailed with yoga practice can be considered sinful, so the person who has tried every type of sinful engagement and eliminated them as being necessary can very easily accept yoga and thereby continue from where they left off in the previous life.
Regardless of the specific circumstances of birth, whether in this life or the next, there is always something to be gained by taking steps towards Krishna. The spiritual energy is like a sun that never sets. Its warmth is always there for whoever wants to take advantage of it. Even if success in yoga is hard to come by right now, through determination it will eventually arrive. The dedicated devotee is always in good graces with Krishna, who then takes the responsibility for their welfare.
In yoga practice there is no need to hurry,
Even if unsuccessful in this life no worry.
In next life take birth in family of aristocracy,
Or in pious family full of enlightened yogis.
Upon that renewed opportunity seize,
To again start in yoga and Krishna please.
But isn’t it a problem to be born rich,
To gratify senses all the time like unending itch?
To a cultured family is what aristocracy means,
To find spiritual life and sinful reactions clean.