Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Real Self-Interest

Rama and Lakshmana“I had turned my mind away from sense gratification and instead did service for meeting spiritual interests. But now seeing them [Rama and Lakshmana] I knowingly want to seek out selfish interests.” (Janaki Mangala, 45)

biṣaya bimukha mana mora sei paramāratha |
inhahiṃ dekhi bhayo magana jāni baḍa svāratha ||

In the Shrimad Bhagavatam, the crown-jewel of Vedic literature, there is a statement by Prahlada Maharaja relating to the self-interest of every human being. Artha refers to profit or interest, and it can be of two kinds. First there are the selfish desires, those things we want for our body as it is currently constituted. Then there are the spiritual interests, desires to be met in the afterlife, after we have exited our current body. Though typically a distinction is made between the two types of interest, Prahlada kindly notes that one’s self-interest can actually be met by going towards Vishnu, the Supreme Lord. In that endeavor there is no question of a difference between the interests of the self in the present world and the assets accumulated for the afterlife.

“Persons who are strongly entrapped by the consciousness of enjoying material life, and who have therefore accepted as their leader or guru a similar blind man attached to external sense objects, cannot understand that the goal of life is to return home, back to Godhead, and engage in the service of Lord Vishnu. As blind men guided by another blind man miss the right path and fall into a ditch, materially attached men led by another materially attached man are bound by the ropes of fruitive labor, which are made of very strong cords, and they continue again and again in materialistic life, suffering the threefold miseries.”  (Prahlada Maharaja, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.5.31)

Prahlada MaharajaA distinction is only seen because there is a supposed difference in behavior guided by the particular state of mind. With focus on svartha, or self-interest, there is so much work to be done. If my selfish interest is to be wealthy, I will purchase some land and try to either flip it for a higher price or have tenants to pay the monthly bills. Another pathway towards wealth is owning your own business, providing a good or service to society for a fee that enables you to earn a profit. These interests are selfish, as they only relate to the present body, which is destined for destruction.

To use another example, let’s say that you are in your senior year of college. You know that you will be graduating and moving on to the real world of working at the end of the year, so your focus isn’t so much on school anymore. The real self-interest is in preparing yourself for graduation and then working after that, but you instead foolishly concentrate only on the right now, the present. Because of this you take your self-interest to be partying and drinking with your friends, night after night. In the short term you will feel pleasure, but the behavior isn’t wise because your identity as a graduating college student will expire very shortly. Once that identity leaves, the partying you did previously will not help you going forward.

Svartha as a whole suffers from the same defect, namely the changing of identity. Therefore the Vedas put emphasis on paramartha, or supreme profit. These are the interests relating to the afterlife, where one heads after the present life completes. To acquire unselfish, spiritual merits one has to turn their back on the things presently constituting svartha. Eating, sleeping, mating and defending are activities of the animals that the human being follows as well. Nevertheless, they do not meet the higher interests of the living entity, so with proper instruction one can learn to indulge in them as little as possible.

In this way paramartha generally equates to renunciation. Give up those things which don’t relate to your true identity as a spirit soul, who is beyond the temporary manifestations of matter. To meet paramartha, follow the Vedic rituals and regulations, live by austerity, don’t get too attached to anything of the phenomenal world, and then be Brahman realized. Brahman is the Absolute Truth. It is pure spirit, a giant collection of energy of which we are part. Every living entity is a spark of Brahman, so they are eternal, blissful and knowledgeable by constitution, though the current collection of material elements inhibits that position from rising to a fully active state.

King JanakaThough he was the ruler of Mithila, King Janaka was solely focused on paramartha. He had renounced the pursuit for selfish interests in favor of abiding by dharma. He was an adept yogi, capable of withdrawing the mind from the objects of the senses. Even though he was renounced and focused on paramartha, he still exhibited model behavior by taking care of his occupational duties. He managed his kingdom very well, and when his eldest daughter reached the proper age, he arranged for her marriage.

In the kshatriya community, it is quite common for marriages to be determined by a show of dexterity or bravery. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, married over sixteen thousand wives during His time on earth, and almost every one of them were won through a contest or a kidnap-style arrangement. A warrior must fight, just as a general must have a mission to lead. If these opportunities for action are absent, the titles don’t mean anything. The kings of the past would welcome any opportunity to show their fighting prowess. From the father’s side, if he could see a young man showing off his strength in battle, he would take it as a sign that his daughter would be protected by him.

Janaka held a contest for lifting an extremely heavy bow. The winner would show that they were the strongest man in the world. They would prove their ability to protect Sita Devi, the beloved daughter of the king. Though he was renounced from the world, Janaka still held high affection for his beloved daughter, whom he had found one day while ploughing a field. She was a baby at the time, and Janaka took her in and raised her as his daughter. Now it was time to give her away.

We got a hint of the true meaning of svartha when Janaka held affection for Sita upon seeing her for the first time, and in the above referenced verse from the Janaki Mangala, we are again reminded of that meaning. Lord Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana came to Janaka’s city to witness the festivities. They were accompanying the exalted Vishvamitra Muni through the forests. When Janaka saw the two brothers, he couldn’t believe how beautiful they were. “Who are their parents? They must be an ocean of purity. These boys are unbelievably beautiful and I can’t stop looking at them.”

In the above referenced verse, which is both insightful and humorous, Janaka remarks on how he had previously given up sense gratification in favor of chasing paramartha, but now he was only interested in seeking selfish-interest to a large degree by looking at these youths. Yet from the instruction of Prahlada Maharaja, we see that Janaka was actually not breaking from his previous position. Because Shri Rama is Vishnu Himself and Lakshmana the Lord’s eternal servant, harboring affection for them does fulfill paramartha. Since they appeared in a world where the general pursuit is for selfish interests, Janaka thought that appreciating their beauty and wanting to soak in the visual nectar over and over again was a selfish desire.

Rama and LakshmanaIn the arena of bhakti, becoming selfish actually equates to happiness both in the present and future. The self-interest of the living entity is met by immersing oneself in the transcendental qualities of the Supreme Lord. One can hear about these qualities, chant mantras describing them, or witness them personally as Janaka did. Suddenly, the great king’s renunciation went out the window. No more strict austerity, penance, and sacrifice for worrying about merits that may or may not arrive in the afterlife. His focused shifted to the here and now, looking at God and His younger brother while they were in front of him.

Should one be interested only in paramartha, the steps they take to secure it nevertheless purifies them and makes them eligible for witnessing the same beauty that Janaka saw. But with worship of Vishnu you don’t have to wait until the afterlife to enjoy the benefits. The spirit soul is constitutionally situated to be a lover of God, so that love can be released at any moment and at any stage in life. Both selfish and unselfish merits exhaust after a certain period of time, but harboring a loving attachment for God only brings more opportunities for service in the future.

Seeing Rama and Lakshmana, Janaka developed a strong affection for them, and though he thought he had fallen back into the world of material association, he actually started his real service to God. His dispassion made him pure and his attention to dharma made him respected and worthy of spiritual merits, but it was his love for Sita that brought Rama and Lakshmana to his kingdom. It would be his love for the Supreme Lord that would make him famous throughout history, as he is still celebrated and honored to this day for his devotion.

In Closing:

Prahlada Maharaja says man does not know,

That his real self-interest is to Vishnu’s realm to go.

 

Svartha for sense gratification to acquire,

Paramartha for spiritual realm to aspire.

 

But in bhakti-yoga no such distinction,

For devotional service is desired condition.

 

With worldly life King Janaka thought he was done,

But changed when seeing visitors who had come.

 

Rama and Lakshmana, of beauty one couldn’t believe.

From attachment to them real self-interest receive.

Krishna's Mercy