“Fruitive work, in which almost all people in general are engaged, is always painful either in the beginning or at the end. It can be fruitful only when made subservient to the devotional service of the Lord. In the Bhagavad-gita also it is confirmed that the result of such fruitive work may be offered for the service of the Lord, otherwise it leads to material bondage.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.5.12 Purport)
You’ve got a giant rock that you need to push up a hill. Knowing the specific objective being furthered is not that important, as the task is daunting enough. This rock is rather heavy, and it requires both physical effort and mental fortitude to get it to roll all the way to the top of the steep hill, fighting the laws of gravity in the process. The physical effort is easy to recognize, but the test on the mind comes from the fact that there is every chance that while progressing forward the rock will fall all the way back down, thereby erasing whatever progress you have made. While the effort is being expended, there is dedication to an activity that seems constructive, so in this sense there is no worry over being influenced by outside allures. At the same time, once the rock makes it to the top, you are again left with free time. In addition, the rock may roll back down at any time, which would then require a repeat of the activity. Though it seems like every kind of activity would follow the same pattern, it doesn’t have to. The results of work dovetailed with service to the person who created both the rock and the entire material creation can never be erased.
“For one who has taken his birth, death is certain; and for one who is dead, birth is certain. Therefore, in the unavoidable discharge of your duty, you should not lament.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.27)
As soon as there is birth there must be death. Not that the end of life has to happen right away; just that at some point in the future, there will come a time that the new blood that joined the earth must depart and again accept a new destination. The localized instance of acceptance and rejection is but one example of the many aspects of life that follow the same pattern. You complete a task at work only to have more jobs to do afterwards. You work hard during the week and relax on the weekend, only to have to do it all over again the following week. If you know while you’re performing a specific activity that eventually you’ll have to repeat it again many times in the future, how can that not dent your motivation? If I’m pushing a rock up a hill and I know it will eventually roll back down, what is the point?
Rather than endlessly speculate as to a permanent solution, one can tap into the vast storehouse of knowledge that is the Vedas, whose most concise and complete treatise is the Bhagavad-gita, a song sung on a battlefield some five thousand years ago. The repetitive cycle of action and reaction that we see is known as karma, or fruitive activity. More specifically, the type of engagement where we do something for a specific reward only to have that enjoyment remain manifest for a short time falls into a mode of work known as passion.
“The mode of passion is born of unlimited desires and longings, O son of Kunti, and because of this one is bound to material fruitive activities.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.7)
Fortunately, the speaker of the Gita reveals that the mode of passion isn’t the only way to act. There are ways to fix things so that you’re not left repeating the same behavior all the time without making any progress. There are also the modes of ignorance and goodness, which have their own respective activities. Fruitive activity in the mode of passion is accepted by the human being by default, thus there is no instruction needed in this area. You sow the seeds that you planted so that you can taste the resulting fruits, all the while being pricked by the thorns on the growing tree. You push the rock up the hill so that it gets to its intended destination, all the while laboriously exerting yourself and not getting too much satisfaction afterwards.
The mode of ignorance can be likened to being at the top of the hill and just pushing the rock back down for no rhyme or reason. What we would call stupid, or overtly sinful, behavior falls squarely in the mode of ignorance. It reaps no tangible benefit, and it takes the worker to a position much worse off from where they started.
The mode of goodness can be likened to a knowledge gathering task, where the component pieces of existence are seen in the proper light. In the mode of goodness the rock is pushed up the hill without desire for personal gain. It is done more out of protocol, knowing that it should be done. Whether the rock makes it up all the way or falls back down is of no concern to the person in goodness, because they understand everything in the proper context.
“When the embodied being is able to transcend these three modes, he can become free from birth, death, old age and their distresses and can enjoy nectar even in this life.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 14.20)
The speaker of the Gita reveals that even the mode of goodness is binding, for the results of action are still manifest. If there are visible results to action, those results must disappear as well. Whether I want that outcome or not is not important in the mode of goodness, but nevertheless the temporary reward does come about, causing the worker to become accustomed to the short-lived happiness. There is an answer, however. Follow the mode of pure goodness, which transcends the bounds of time and space. This mode brings permanent progress, which corresponds directly with the inherent properties of the individual.
In the mode of goodness, which is accepted on the basis of authority and not just whimsically created, the living entity learns that they are an individual fragment of spirit, sort of like a spark from a fire. Since there is no quantitative comparison between the different sparks, every life form is equal. The enjoyment resulting from fruitive activity is not meant for the spark, but rather for its outer covering. Since this covering can vary in makeup, having different combinations of the modes of goodness, passion and ignorance, there is more than one outlet for enjoyment. Some sparks enjoy eating stool and rolling around in filth, while others require fine wine and expensive living establishments. In either case, the sparks are equal in their constitution, and thus there is really no difference between their situations.
Things get interesting when the living being learns about his real properties, the makeup of the individual sparks. At the core there is a dharma, or essential characteristic, which exists eternally. In some cases that dharma may be covered up, but it is there nonetheless. If we place a shade over a lamp and thereby make the room darker, the actual flame from the lamp has not lessened in intensity; only the external vision of the observer has changed. Just because a spiritual spark may be in the form of an ant or cow doesn’t mean that the dharma of the soul is absent.
This dharma is the inclination to serve. The predominance of this characteristic cannot be denied because every person, even one steeped in the mode of ignorance, has a penchant to serve. When the proper beneficiary is identified, the results of that service are permanent and bring bliss and knowledge - three features which line up with the soul’s properties.
How do we find that proper beneficiary? How can we trust that the results are what they are purported to be? In the beginning there must be some faith extended, but this shouldn’t be that difficult to do. We trust so many people right now, even those who we know lie to get to where they are. Politicians are routinely lambasted, criticized and yelled at for their duplicitous ways, yet they are still entrusted with the most important matters of government. Extending faith to the proper authority figures of the Vedic tradition does not cost us much in the beginning, and the results are so wonderful that the people who follow the prescriptions spend the rest of their lives glorifying both the originator of the supreme wisdom and the people who passed it on.
Who is the origin of this system? What is the system and where do we go to learn about it? Not surprisingly, the same person who revealed to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra about the three modes of nature is the object of service for every spark of spirit. He is the ideal beneficiary for action because He is the only entity capable of accepting every offering. He can never be smothered with love, nor can the sweet fruit He returns in the form of His association ever go bad or diminish in taste.
This person is none other than Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Not a mythical character or tribal hero turned God, Krishna is the real deal. His supreme standing as the most fortunate person is supported by the benefits that come from following devotion to Him in the discipline known as bhakti-yoga. From regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, not only is time well spent in an act of pure goodness, but real progress is made in terms of development of consciousness.
Why would we want to develop consciousness? In education, smaller steps are taken to fulfill a larger goal. For instance, learning the alphabet through reading and writing exercises is quite silly for someone who already knows how to read and write. Yet the activities are taken up by students so that their knowledge will be shaped to the point that they will no longer need to follow the same exercises. One works at the jobsite to have enough money to pay the bills, and one exercises so that their body will remain healthy. Thus we see that education and work lead to more permanent benefits all the time.
Consciousness is the most powerful force belonging to the living being. This is true because a purified consciousness can result in a favorable condition anywhere, regardless of success or failure. The person connected with Shri Krishna in thought, word and deed doesn’t even need to push the rock up the hill. If for Krishna they should happen to take on the arduous task, they will think about the Lord the entire time. This means that if the rock should roll back down the hill again, at least the time was spent in pure bliss.
In fruitive activity there is pain in both the beginning and end. As an example, at the start one thinks of how difficult it will be to push the rock up the hill. At completion there is the worry of the effort going to waste by the rock rolling back down. Moreover, the next time a rock needs to be pushed up a hill, the previous arduous effort will be remembered, making it even more difficult to take up the task. As another example, computer programmers often write complex routines and applications to be used in the business world. If perchance they should have to revisit that code later on, after much time has passed, it is not surprising for them to marvel at how complicated the code is. “How did I ever write this? I can’t imagine creating this from scratch again.” This means that the effort was difficult in the beginning and throughout. Since the fruits are temporary and also the cause of bondage in the form of fear, there is pain in the end too.
In bhakti there is transcendental pleasure at every step. If one is hesitant to chant Hare Krishna on a set of japa beads every day, meditating can still be constructive, as it keeps the individual automatically away from harmful activities like intoxication, meat eating, illicit sex and gambling. The more one chants the easier it becomes to repeat in the future. Krishna is the reservoir of all pleasure, the most attractive entity in the world. Staying connected with Him through consciousness only brings enhanced delights with each repeat effort, making the individual more and more eager to serve Him and think of Him.
“For those who have accepted the boat of the lotus feet of the Lord, who is the shelter of the cosmic manifestation and is famous as Murari, the enemy of the Mura demon, the ocean of the material world is like the water contained in a calf's hoof-print. Their goal is param padam, Vaikuntha, the place where there are no material miseries, not the place where there is danger at every step.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 10.14.58)
As an added bonus, a reward that seems trivial to those already immersed in bhakti, at the end of life the worker dedicated to Krishna does not have to see a repeat existence in the material world. The cycle of birth and death stops for the Krishna conscious soul, granting the reward known as mukti, or liberation. Since Krishna grants this liberation, He is also known as Mukunda, or one who gives mukti. As fruitive activity involving things like pushing a heavy rock up a hill is difficult to abandon, the material existence is likened to a vast ocean that is nearly impossible to cross over. For those who find the mode of pure goodness, however, that same ocean turns into the size of a pool of water filling a calf’s hoof-print. The consciousness connected to the divine has no more anxieties relating to past, present and future, for it resides in Vaikuntha, the place free of anxieties.
Worked so hard to push that rock up the hill,
Physical and mental effort have your fill.
Pushing heavy rock against gravity hard,
Mind worried over failure with each passing yard.
Victory tempered when you reach hill’s top,
For what if heavy rock should suddenly drop?
In this cycle does all activity follow,
Win or lose in misery you will wallow.
Devotion to Krishna though is not the same,
In purifying consciousness there is steady gain.