“The grihastha ashrama, or the shelter of spiritual family life, is as good as the life of a sannyasi, a member of the renounced order. Regardless of whether one is a householder or a renunciate, the important point is that of relevant inquiries.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Science of Self-Realization, 1f)
The structure you’re trying to support with your work determines the influence that the work will have on your overall consciousness, which is the determining factor in one’s disposition, positive or negative. Whether one is working on an assembly line and going through the motions or starting a brand new computer company at a time when the personal computer doesn’t even exist, it is the influence on consciousness that determines whether the work applied is worthwhile. When supporting the highest aim, that which keeps consciousness pure, even ordinary work can become a source of great pleasure.
In Vedic culture, the sannyasa ashrama is held in high esteem. Based on the conditions required to maintain this order we can see the obvious benefits. Sannyasa equates to renunciation, and specifically to giving up ties to the spouse. From the relationship to the spouse come so many obligations of family. Family responsibilities require that one has to support a household, which means that one has to work for many years. When one is obligated to do something, their time is immediately occupied in affairs that aren’t necessarily enjoyable. If it is my desire to play on the beach all day or just travel to different destinations, I obviously can’t do these things if I have to work to support my family.
Sannyasa relieves the most pressing of these obligations, as the order is typically accepted after one has been married for many years. When the spouse can be taken care of by the children, a person can accept the renounced order and be free from family obligations. Nevertheless, as it is an ashrama, or spiritual institution, sannyasa is meant to further the highest goal of attaining pure God consciousness by the time of death. Human beings have a higher intelligence for a reason. Without the ability to contemplate on God and achieve His association, the life of an animal is preferable, as there are minimal worries.
“And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.5)
With the release of obligations, a sannyasi can dedicate more time to devotional efforts, such as chanting the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, assimilating Vedic wisdom, and travelling from place to place disseminating information about bhakti-yoga. Bhakti, or devotion, is the soul’s most pleasurable occupation and when it is tied to yoga, the love is directed at the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Through their position, the sannyasi acquires the highest gravitas. His message calling for exclusive devotion to God carries the most weight because he lives a renounced life. If I am overweight and talk to people about the benefits of exercise and eating healthy, obviously my message will not be taken very seriously. In a similar manner, if someone is attached to material existence, working hard to maintain a home revolved around sense gratification, the message that bhakti-yoga is the highest discipline for mankind will be more difficult to accept. A sannyasi has no source of income; they purposefully travel from one place to another, not staying for too long anywhere they expect to get good accommodations. Though the changing modern times have loosened some of the restrictions on the sannyasa order, the main purpose to the ashrama remains the same: dedicating one’s life completely to serving God.
So what about the family man? Is he lost? Does he have no chance for self-realization because he must work? As mentioned before, we accept work to support a certain goal. The grihastha ashrama, or married householder life, is not held in as high esteem as the sannyasa order because one must mix with fruitive activity to maintain their home. There is a risk in this, for if the goals start shifting towards increasing the luxuries at home, at having indulgence in sense gratification over anything else, the consciousness gets contaminated during the application of work.
If contamination does occur, the remedy is not to suddenly abandon the home and take up the life of a mendicant. Rather, if the primary occupational practice within the home is shifted towards bhakti-yoga, then even the fruitive work becomes pure. For instance, if I work hard to maintain a home where regular chanting of the holy names takes place, where sumptuous food preparations are offered to the deity representation of the Supreme Lord residing in a place in the home, then my work is actually part of yoga. In fact, everything that I do to support that lifestyle, from eating properly to sleeping on time, becomes a component of that yoga as well.
Who would ever think that arriving in the office and answering your emails and phone calls would be an act of yoga? Typically, the ancient discipline is associated with sitting in strange postures and travelling to remote destinations where one can meditate with limited distractions. The mind is the central focus of yoga, as its link to the divine consciousness forges a bond that produces bliss. Whatever state of being one remembers at the time of death, they attain that state in the next life. So whoever keeps the link to the divine consciousness active while exiting the body attains the company of the Lord in the next life.
“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.6)
A person who works for serving the Supreme Lord, for creating a spiritual atmosphere in their place of residence, who never flinches in their devotion, actually lives the life of a sannyasi though they may not have the necessary robes. The sannyasi is a traveller after all, going from place to place to deliver the news from the transcendental realm. That message is required because without accepting information from a chain of disciplic succession that originates at the beginning of time, mankind will continue to speculate on the nature of the Absolute Truth. That speculation will never reach a concrete conclusion, for without authority any person’s guess is as good as another’s.
Picture being in a room with other people when suddenly the lights go out. In the dark, the room’s occupants can speculate as to what’s going on externally, but no one can actually be sure that what they are saying is true. On the other hand, when the light is present, the same objects around the room can be described in a multitude of ways, with each person’s description being valid since they understand the actual nature of the objects about which they speak.
The human mind alone is incapable of understanding the Supreme Absolute Truth because of duality. Can we imagine something that is white and black at the same time? What about a form that has hands and at the same time doesn’t? These are some of the features that describe the Supreme Absolute Truth, who is both formless and with form. The absence of a form can only take place when there is a form that gets removed, sort of like how darkness only enters when light dissipates.
“By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.4)
In the Bhagavad-gita, the object of sacrifice, the Supreme Absolute Truth in His personal form, describes how He pervades the material existence with His impersonal aspect, which doesn’t have a form visible to the eyes. God resides within us as the Supersoul, but we don’t see Him. We can’t even see the individual soul within the body, which represents our identity, so how are we going to notice God’s unmanifested form?
The Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic scriptures describe the personal forms of the Lord which have appeared on this planet many times throughout the years. Spiritualists worship these personal forms, which are described as avataras of Bhagavan. Even if one doesn’t know the Absolute Truth’s personal form, they are still worshiping Him all the same, though that worship doesn’t bring personal association. Only the devotee connects with Bhagavan, for the Supreme Lord appears on the scene to validate their dedication. A long time ago, a famous five-year old son of a king was being tortured by his atheist father. Prahlada Maharaja was dedicated to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and his father Hiranyakashipu didn’t like this. Prahlada tried to explain to his father that God was inside of him as well, but the father wouldn’t listen. Rather, he mocked Prahlada and sarcastically asked if his God were in the pillar situated next to them. Prahlada said “yes”, and immediately the Supreme Lord in the form of Narasimhadeva appeared on the scene and did away with Hiranyakashipu.
The impersonal aspect of the Supreme Lord pervades the material creation, and the unmanifested Supersoul is also within every living creature, but these features did not appear on the scene to protect Prahlada. Rather, the Supreme Lord, in a personal form, appeared from a pillar to show that He is a personality, someone with features that are astonishing in their abilities. These features are all-attractive and all-good. Though Narasimhadeva killed Hiranyakashipu with His nails, that act of violence is wonderful to remember, as it showed God’s dedication to protecting those who surrender everything to Him.
Whether one is a householder or a sannyasi, dedication to bhakti-yoga is what matters. Our work supports a specific end, and if that end involves bhakti-yoga, the hard work that we apply will always be worth it. The Personality of Godhead hears the heartfelt cries of His holy name coming from His devotees, just as the mother of a newborn calf rushes to the scene and produces milk for her dependent child. The spiritual association is the greatest reward in life, for it is the only link that doesn’t sever at the time of death. Krishna remains with those who love Him, regardless of the specific work they may take up to please Him.
Sannyasi high gravitas to gain,
By no longer in home to remain.
From fruitive work’s full rejection,
No more duties or obligations.
But all work just meant to further an end,
The structure of home on our work depends.
For purification just change your goal,
Glories of God in home do you extol.
To love Krishna like Prahlada make life’s aim,
Personal divine association to gain.